© Bern Schwartz / National Portrait Gallery

Isaiah Berlin and the promise of freedom

Human existence is laced with tragedy. We can find hope in the work of a philosopher who thought we should never stop striving to be free
July 19, 2023

On 23rd October 1997, Tony Blair, then six months into his first term as prime minister, wrote Isaiah Berlin a letter. Blair didn’t know that by then, the philosopher was 88 and in failing health. He told Berlin he’d just read an interview in Prospect that Berlin had conducted with Steven Lukes. The full interview actually dated back to just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In it, Berlin had been scathing about the British left. “Where is there an active left now?” he exclaimed. Where were the new ideas coming from? When Lukes offered up Michel Foucault, Berlin seemed incredulous. What? Was that all? Instead of obscure French intellectuals, there had once been a homegrown intellectual galaxy of British left-wingers: Harold Laski, GDH Cole, John Strachey, Victor Gollancz, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, and he could have added George Orwell. And today? Où sont les neiges d’antan? What happened to the snows of yesteryear?

Berlin had told Lukes that, with the collapse and disgrace of “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet bloc in 1991, the western left had also collapsed as a political and intellectual project. But surely this was wrong, Blair insisted. The left’s value system—“opposition to arbitrary authority, intolerance and hierarchy”—pre-dated the Soviet Union and would outlive it. The left shared these values with liberals like Berlin, Blair suggested, but freedom from, the guiding value of the liberal creed—freeing individuals from arbitrary power—had degenerated into neoliberalism, into the individualism of laissez-faire.

It was time, Blair thought, to revive the left by rescuing freedom to, Berlin’s idea of positive liberty. Positive liberty is the freedom to choose who rules you and, by that act, to choose the collective goods that create freedom and opportunity for all. In Stalin’s hands, freedom had degenerated into the hypocritical rationale of an all-powerful state imposing its way of life on a people “for their own good.” Berlin detested any political movement claiming to know what people wanted better than they did themselves, and he suspected that earnest, politically correct western socialists were also prey, if not to totalitarian fantasies, then at least to the hubristic delusion that ordinary people could be taught to want what socialists wanted. Blair denied this was the case. Western socialism had learned from the “depredations” of the Soviet model. Freedom from arbitrary constraint, he believed, was critical to any creed on the left, but it needed to be underpinned by freedom to, and that meant not more state tyranny but seeking “to devolve political power and to build a more egalitarian community.” This new synthesis, Blair conceded, didn’t have “a ready-made vehicle to take [it] forward”, but that was the machine—New Labour—that Blair wanted to create. Could he discuss his ideas with Berlin?

Berlin detested any political movement claiming to know what people wanted better than they did themselves

Berlin was too frail to reply. By 5th November, two weeks later, he was dead. 

So the meeting between the ascendant avatar of New Labour and the declining sage of old liberalism exists only in the realm of the might-have-been. If they had sat down in Downing Street, that meeting could easily have turned into a comedy of errors, with each side—the ambitious prime minister bent on creating a bold new “third way”, and the sceptical old thinker—talking past the other. 

Berlin’s “negative liberty” was not, as Blair might have supposed, a synonym for laissez-faire neoliberalism; any more than Blair’s social democracy was a synonym for top-down state meddling and interference. The British welfare state, which both Blair and Berlin wanted to preserve and strengthen, was a hybrid creation not of two, but of three brother adversaries—liberalism, social democracy and conservatism—combining in a transformative but unstable postwar synthesis. Liberals like William Beveridge, conservatives like Rab Butler and Harold Macmillan, and social democrats like Nye Bevan had all believed in the welfare state, but their consensus was fragile because they did not believe in it for the same reasons. When, in the 1970s, conservatives and some liberals came to believe social democracy was strangling freedom for the sake of equality, the intellectual space emerged for the Thatcher counter-revolution. 

More than 25 years on, Berlin is no more, New Labour and the third way are distant memories, Thatcherism is irrecoverable, Brexit and further national decline have narrowed the options for a shrunken country. Does anything remain of Berlin’s liberalism that might be serviceable, beyond the new dawn that is coming in British politics, to Keir Starmer’s regime or a Rishi Sunak-led Conservative party that has returned from the dead?

Berlin’s liberalism is not easy to assign a future to, because it never had a stable home in the political past. He leant his support, at elections, to all three currents of his time. In 1945 he voted Labour, in the election that chucked Churchill out; in 1951 he voted Liberal, to remove Attlee; and at other times he may even have voted Conservative, from sheer desire to teach the others a lesson. His liberalism sometimes aligned with one power source, sometimes another. His broadcasts on the BBC in the 1950s established him as a respected purveyor of a sceptical liberal gradualism, and if he had any actual political influence in his own times, it was his part in confirming sceptical gradualism as the default political setting for swathes of  “the great and the good” in the London elite and the professionals in the broad English middle class. Berlin’s work never served, as Keynes’s, Crossman’s or Beveridge’s did, as an inspiration for party political platforms.

If all that Berlin left behind was the warm beer of liberal gradualism, it would not be much of a legacy. But he left much more, and to grasp what the achievement now looks like, more than a quarter of a century after his death, it’s necessary to see what he did to transform the grand liberal tradition he inherited from the 19th century. This was a tradition forged by Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. They all believed that liberalism was aligned with the direction of history itself. Since the French Revolution, they argued, the popular drive for equality had become the transforming force of history. Equality meant democracy and for Mill, Tocqueville and Constant, the challenge for liberalism was to tame the majority rule of the masses with the counter-majoritarian force of liberal institutions: individual rights, the rule of law and a free press. Liberal democracy was history’s answer to the problem of how to reconcile equality with the stability of democratic institutions. 

Berlin agreed that this was liberal democracy’s raison d’être, but he rejected the idea that liberal moderation had history on its side. What helped Berlin to understand this were his beloved Russian writers, whom he read in his native Russian. Alexander Herzen’s time in prison and then in exile left him with no illusions that history was any friend of democracy and liberty. Berlin frequently quoted Herzen’s remark that “history has no libretto”. History was not the story of democracy advancing hand in hand with liberty. The political giants of the 19th century—men like Garibaldi, Mazzini, Gladstone, Disraeli and Palmerston—could have believed that. But in the 20th century, after Stalinism, Nazism, extermination and war, the challenge of being a liberal, Berlin understood, was to fight for individual freedom without any certainty that history was your ally. 

That did not stop many liberals still believing this happy fable after the Second World War. They greeted Martin Luther King’s struggle for civil rights in the US, and decolonisation in Africa and Asia, as proof that history was once again on the side of liberty and democracy. Berlin supported decolonisation but he was sceptical that it would end so well. What many newly independent African states wanted was not rights-respecting democracy but the right to rule themselves, which often ended in tyranny.

Child survivors of Auschwitz during the 
Soviet liberation in 1945. Berlin believed the march of progress could no longer be taken for granted after the horrors of Nazism © World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo Child survivors of Auschwitz during the Soviet liberation in 1945. Berlin believed the march of progress could no longer be taken for granted after the horrors of Nazism © World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

To accept this was to abandon an imperial vocation for liberalism: to realise decolonisation did not inevitably bring freedom in its wake; that liberal democracy might not advance, but in fact recede; that in many countries, liberal democracy might not be workable at all. This bleak historical realism has proved more prescient than Francis Fukuyama’s claim after 1989 that liberal democracy had proved itself to be, at last, history’s destiny. African freedom is still a work in progress. In Europe, democratically elected leaders such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland have delivered their countries up to new forms of illiberalism (this is to say nothing of Russia’s violent imperialism and the destruction inflicted on a neighbouring democracy). In China, economic liberalisation has not brought democracy, but ever-tightening authoritarian rule. So now, Berlin’s view that history was never necessarily on liberalism’s side is not a counsel of despair. It should renew democratic determination. It forces us to realise that it will be up to the embattled fortresses of liberal democracy, and the conviction of their peoples, if liberty is to prevail.

Having severed liberalism from progress, Berlin went on to cut away its dependence on an optimistic account of human nature. This Russian Jew, whose relatives were shot by the Nazis in 1941, recast liberalism for a post-Auschwitz world. This historian of the Russian intelligentsia, who visited the great poet Anna Akhmatova one night in Leningrad in 1945, recast liberalism for the world of Stalin’s gulag.

In stripping liberalism of its hubristic association with historical progress and anthropological optimism, Berlin returned liberalism to the century he had lived through, the century of mass murder, industrial slaughter and politically organised hatred. He also returned liberalism to a world of nationalism. Having been forced into exile himself as a boy, after the Russian Revolution, he understood the tidal force of a longing for a home of your own. This made him, of all the liberals of his time, the one who did not disdain nationalism or turn it into a synonym for fanaticism. He was a Zionist because he knew what it was like to be at the mercy of people who hate you.

Berlin’s historical scepticism makes for an instructive contrast with the other influential liberal of his era, the Harvard philosopher John Rawls. Berlin and Rawls admired each other, but their liberal projects could not have been more different. Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971) takes men and women out of history altogether, to try to imagine what social arrangements any of them would want in a perfect world, if they were behind a “veil of ignorance” and couldn’t determine in advance what position they would occupy.

Berlin’s liberalism, in contrast, is a liberalism in history, without the false clarity of abstraction, without the comfort of believing that men and women will make rational choices, without the security of ideal theory. Berlin understands us as fragile and fallible creatures who cannot forget our grievances, cannot forgive our oppressors, cannot imagine any other world than the one we are in, and who must, as a consequence, make choices, not just between good and evil, but between justice and mercy, liberty and equality, order and freedom. All of these decisions must be made in the moment, without enough time, information or dispassion, only with the historically bounded passions that possess us. 

In returning liberalism to history, he also returned liberalism to the divided human beings we really are. He was a divided soul himself, with identities—Jewish, British, Russian, scholarly, worldly—that warred within him, beneath his genial, self-deprecating and humorous public persona. His account of our inner divisions led him to put special emphasis on the incompatibility and conflict between the different things that we desire. Politics was a battle between competing interests, but also a battle within each of us over contending values.

Berlin understands us as fragile and fallible creatures who cannot forget our grievances, cannot forgive our oppressors

In his most famous lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, he said: “If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them compatible with each other, the possibility of conflict can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or public.”

Conflict—and tragedy. For him, tragedy was intrinsic to politics. We are cast into the world without the comfort of knowing historical events will resolve in our favour and without the guarantee that we are fully rational. When we choose, we inevitably lose something of value for the sake of something we need or care for more. In this situation, our choices are bound to be error-prone and almost certainly exposed to the risk of tragic loss and subsequent regret.

All this dark emphasis on tragedy in political choice, on human dividedness, and on the certainty that we cannot have all the good things we desire makes for a stark contrast with the sunny world of Tony Blair’s third way. It makes for a contrast with any of the dominant political languages currently offered for sale in the democratic west. We want uplift: we want to be told that we’re not as bad as we think we are and that our hopes are not going to be stillborn. We crave a politics of hope to ward off night thoughts and despair at the state of the world. Berlin understood our need to be deceived, and he did not despise us for wanting the comfort of illusions. He would have understood that Blair’s job as a politician was to point to a believable, attainable future. But that is not a thinker’s responsibility. A thinker’s job is to keep us looking at the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. By that standard, Berlin’s work will always be read because, in its lucidity, it continues to describe us as we actually are. 

This was not an expression of hopeless resignation. For him, liberty had to be the shining star of any politics, because only liberty respected the reality of our divided souls and the irremediable conflict between our objectives and values. Equality came second to liberty in his hierarchy of principles. Without the equality of life chances created by shared public goods—decent homes, good schools, affordable transport, universities accessible to anyone with ability—liberty would remain the privilege of the rich and fortunate. So freedom from—from arbitrariness, injustice and monopoly power—had to advance hand in hand with freedom to—to choose your rulers and create a shared world in common. In the battles he never lived to see, this would mean, I’m sure, wresting the banner of freedom back from those who have sliced freedom from and freedom to apart—including those right-wing conservatives who are trying to force upon us a corrupted understanding of freedom, one that permits the removal of all obstacles, all regulation, all hindrances, to unlimited accumulation by the few. 

Berlin would have warned us against hubris and intolerance, but also against fatalism. In the battle to come, history is on no one’s side. The outcome of this struggle over who owns the meaning of freedom will come down, as it always does, to the eternal question that decides history’s shape: who is prepared to fight hardest for what they believe.