100 responses from the intellectuals and writers

The British magazine for writers and intellectuals asked its contributors the question: Left versus right defined the 20th century. What’s next? 100 Prospect contributors responded (Prospect March 2007) and what are their responses like? There is evident pessimism! Almost nobody expects the world better in the coming decades, and many think it will get much worse! A sad state of affairs, indeed!

Here are some samples: Julian Baggini, the philosopher wrote: The new conflict is between liberal universalism and a communitarianism which asserts the need for cultures to maintain their own values and traditions. Is the latter just a temporary brake on the former, or will the universalistic dream die? One of the tasks of politics is to work out which values are universal and which are not.

Don Berry, Journalist wrote: We need a planet-saving alternative to democracy. Mankind is set on exhausting the planet’s resources. Voters of rich nations will not want to give anything up; voters or directors in developing countries will seek what the rich have. Some democracies must reflect what majorities want, they cannot stop this process. (Dictatorships won’t care)Science will not rise to the challenge. Old ideas about philosopher-kings and benign dictatorships may be revived. Completely new ideas may emerge. Either way, democracy as we know it will not survive the century.

Philip Bobbitt, Political writer:” Nation state vs. the market state. The constitutional order of the nation state saw its role as one of regulating and reversing the results of markets. Market states, by contrast, try to use the market to achieve their governmental goals. Relatively, national states used laws as a way of enforcing the moral codes of the national dominant group-usually, but not always, a dominant ethnic, cultural and linguistic and racial group. Nation state political parties saw law as the means of achieving their moral goals. Market state parties, whether deregulating industries or deregulating women’s reproduction try to maximize the choices of citizens without taking for granted anything much in the way of agreement about common goals. Among other consequences, this new constitutional order will generate a new form of terrorism.

David Brooks, Journalist: “Instead of left/right we’re moving to open/closed. It’s really a debate about how confident people feel.”

One novelist and critic says:” We will be governed by a kind of consensus populism-beliefs, ideas and policies that arise on blogs, websites, and focus groups and so on”. He points to the fact that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama announced their candidacies on the web. This has its appeal, he says.” It is also frightening, as Tocqueville found American democracy leads to the tyranny of the majority”. Vast quantities of information which is not wholly accurate and yet it dictates public opinions and it is maddening.

One businessman predicts doom. Natural disasters, climate change, failure of crops, water and energy shortages, fears that divided parties into authoritarian and libertarian lines and breakup of cities, as energy crises lead to disruptions and conflicts over territory, food and resources.

An EU official quotes Hegel, the philosopher. History, Hegel said, is the growing idea of freedom. In the 19th century freedom came from the rule of law and the state. In this new century, freedom will come from international law, but there is no international state. So, after Hegel, the nation state when industrialization came faced the workers rights, public health, education and voting rights but now in the new century we would retain national identities but we have to act only internationally, in order to survive. How this can be done, is the major question before mankind.

A film critic writes to say that that power of the internet would change the way we decide our daily lives and decide things by a process of referendums thanks to the power of the internet, the politicians would become irrelevant. One economist says the new technology will create a hyper-democracy; there would be public and populist pressure online. Cognitive sciences and more empirical social sciences would build up more reliable evidence for technocrats to take acceptable decisions.

Meghnad Desai, the India-born economist says the people would assert themselves more, they would decide most of their things, make choices, travel across borders and find solutions for themselves however imperfectly, thus a truly global polity would emerge. The 21st century will be marked by conflicts, between the fit and the slack, between the zealots and the realists.

Eric Hobsbawm, the much popular historian of the day, says, the future conflicts will be between the rationalist, secularist, civilized tradition of the Enlightenment and the irrationalist mobilization of ethnic, religious or other group identities of people, the vast majority are the deprived masses in the developing countries and the minority of the developed West might not be able to have its way all the time, through military intervention and such direct actions. Though the historian didn’t put in these words, and for that matter most of the respondents don’t touch the current anti-Americanism that divides the world into two camps. The rise of Islamic terrorism has brought into one camp the USA and its allies. On the other hand are those countries that have different perceptions from fundamentalist to the more openly differing countries like France and Germany in tackling terrorism.

The skepticism that marks the views of intellectuals about the future for the century have some three strands, it seems. Deeply ideological, like the one put forward by Eric Hobsbawam, between rational, secular ideals vs. the more irrational, religious divide. Then, the technological solutions, through internet, biotech and cognitive sciences to social sciences that could solve many of mankind’s material, health and environmental issues. Third, the institutional reforms from UN reforms to new international institutions like international criminal court to international consensus to overcome wars and maintain peace. While there is much pessimism, there is also an equal measure of optimism in man’s capacity to survive and progress. That has been the history of man’s so many attainments.

Future of liberty
A look at Isaiah Berlin’s ideas and their impact

The world today is much more free and peaceful that it was during the last century. Yet, the new century has seen new wars, new threats. Yes, the USA says it fights for preserving the democratic way of life. Yet, the American action is widely criticized. And also, the democracies are few in number and also more faulted while we see still threatening dictatorships. Military dictators with nuclear weapon-making capabilities are posing serious threats to world peace. The point is the world is as much getting globalised, more international travel takes place, the economies more integrated and yet politically and in terms of sane behavior the world is also sharply divided. At the heart of these divisions lie the most challenging question of the liberty of the citizens.

What constitutes liberty? That is political liberty, of course. Why this emphasis on liberty alone? These are serious questions asked by many. The point is that in mankind’s progress, since the Greek and Roman civilizations to other periods of high developments and achievements like the Italian renaissance and French Enlightenment to  the modern times, we see the individual is always threatened and oppressed and suppressed by the state.

So, the evolution of democracy is one of how men won their rights to be free. In modern times, arose Marxism and then Communism, Nazism and other isms which all promised to liberate the people. But alas, all ended in making the world more brutal, more killings and more darkness all around. Much has been written on the modern world’s madness.

The world has also now been freer in the sense, empires dismantled, the many discriminations of men overcome, there is globalization, more growth in knowledge and opportunities, a greater awareness of human rights, feminist upsurge and more action to abolish poverty in the developing countries. Yet, the pursuit of the new political goals in the post-Communist world is not yet clear.

Not yet there is any widely accepted international consensus. America and UK may be democracies but their joint action in Iraq is neither a democratic action nor the American exposition of democracy acceptable to many in the rest of the world. In developing a consistent theory of politics and philosophy, the West has had a long tradition. This we, in India, must recognize. For that matter, other countries like Russia and China and Japan also has to openly welcome.

Isaiah Berlin comes in as a very influential and highly rated political thinker in the mid-twentieth century.  I was luck enough to study at Oxford at the time when Berlin was a professor there and in so many ways I had the rare privilege of studying under him, I was a regular listener to his famous lectures which drew large crowds. Also I used to run across him many times in the New College, All Souls and in the town where he was immediately noted and greeted with much respect and admiration. I remember one day myself going to a photographer on High Street asking for a photo of Berlin for my use. The photographer, I remember, saying: “Isaiah is very cagey. I myself try to capture him into my lens and yet he proves very elusive…”.So, he was already a hero and an icon among us, the undergraduates!

Now, after so many years when I was keeping track of his activities and thoughts, I find that he had become in his life a cult figure and the current status of Berlin is still as the most influential thinker who interpreted and gave a correct picture to the world to follow. Here I like to assess his ideas and assess far they are worth the   value for our current times.
Liberty of the individual and the freedom of societies have always been the ultimate goals of human societies. This goal first came to man’s consciousness in ancient Greece, since the time of Plato and Aristotle. The most eloquent statement has always been the Pericles Speech in the fifth century Athens. The occasion, the somber mood (when Athens was commemorating their dead in the Peloponnesian war) and the heart-rending tone in which Pericles, Athens’ leader and the first citizen paid the rich tributes to the fallen heroes. The “History of the Peloponnesian War” is as much a treatise on war as on citizens’ liberty and the Greek republican values.
Just now I had gone through “A life of Isaiah Berlin” by Michael Ignatieff (Vintage 1998).Though I had read the many reviews when the book appeared, it  is now I got hold the book and all through the 300 and odd pages I read almost in a single sitting. Berlin was one of my favorite Oxford dons, whose lectures always drew houseful audience. Berlin was already Sir Isaiah Berlin when I arrived in 1959at Oxford in the Michaelmas term, the autumn term and the first of three terms in Oxford academic calendar. As soon as I settled down at New College, I started to meet the College Warden and my tutors I got to know who all the famous names were then. New College itself was the hub of the then famous philosophical movement, namely, the Logical Positivism. Whose exponents were all, most of them New College men! It was then I heard the names of A.J.Ayer and Isaiah Berlin, and the more senior professors H.H.Price and Gilbert Ryle and a number of highly clever tutors, one being my own soon-to-be philosophy tutor Anthony Quinton who is now Lord Quinton and a great public figure in England today.

So, when I went into the town the first thing I did was to buy the books displayed at the  glass fronted doors of Blackwell’s, just outside my College premises and one of the biggest booksellers and publishers in the world. It was there I bought Ayer’s “Language, Truth and Logic”. Then on the High Street at the OUP book stores I bought the Berlin’s famous inaugural lecture,” Two Concepts of Liberty”.

Now when I went through his biography I got to know the full details of how the lecture was composed and how it  came to be delivered in the printed version and what took place before and after and such other tidbits.

Isaiah Berlin when he died in November 1997 at the age of 88, Berlin was perhaps the most famous intellectual of all England and also well-known in much of the Western and Eastern Europe and America. He was born in Russia, in Riga and had seen the coming of the 1917 revolution and the family left Russia and moved over to Europe and finally to England where Berlin had his education. He was a Russian Jew and he had gone through all the trials and tribulations of his community and through he overcame all the prejudices of being a Jew in the eyes of his contemporaries and became yet a great spokesman of the Israeli cause, the founding fathers of the Zionist movement were all his friends and admirers.

At Oxford Berlin soon established his reputation for his rapid-fire conversations and his sharp brain suited the temper of the times. It used to be said at New College how one day Berlin met Ayer at the front quad (Quadrangle) of the College and the two engaged in an argument that went on for hours and hours without any interruption! This was a common joke always told about Berlin. When he was elected as a fellow of All Souls College, he was just known as one who can be sure enough to engage in any serious intellectual argument and the book brings home fully the colorful man Berlin was when he engaged himself in such abstract arguments.

Oxford philosophy at that time was known as analytical and linguistic analysis was its characteristic and there was one fellow at All Souls, A.L. Austin who made the linguistic analysis into a fine art. He just published only one book in his lifetime and in the case of Berlin he hardly published any full-length book! All his writings were his lecture notes or short pieces he contributed to several invitations and that is why you cant get any definitive book by Berlin or one on himself. Thus, the present one helps any Berlin enthusiast to come to grips with the way his ideas grew and got to reach the wider audience.

All these years all my source for Berlin’s ideas were the two collections got up by one  dedicated editor, Henry Hardy, also his literary trustee. One was titled,” Against the Currents: Essays in the History of Ideas, 1979).This collection also has a listing of Berlin’s bibliography. The other collection is,”Personal Impressions” (1998). These are the two volumes that are also available in the local British Council Library. So, I used to borrow these two volumes many times, may be I must be the only person in Bangalore who had used these two volumes so frequently. I often used to  wonder  whenever I took out these volumes:’ May be in the whole of the Commonwealth countries, in every British Council Library, these volumes might be available,  so that old students of Berlin might get the rare pleasure of reading through their wonderful master’s original ideas and insights and get back their  original flashes and refreshing energies!

Yes, such were the original power of the Berlin ideas and they, when delivered by him in such torrent of words and phrases, as he did, they all produced such an impact that we, students at Oxford at that time, though that we can go back and create a new civilization in our own corners!

Isaiah Berlin was a unique Oxford don. It was said of him, he represented the great English ideal. So said, one obituary writer, writing in the Daily Telegraph, William Walgrave said,’ if you ask me to show you what I meant by the ideal of Englishness, I would have taken you to see a Latvian, Jewish, German, Italian mixture of all the cultures of Europe would have taken you to see Isaiah Berlin”(300).Such was his personality so different and yet so evolved into a unique mix of many cultures and many refinements and many talents.

When he was elected as the professor of political and social theory in 1957, it was the first time such a chair was created. Oxford had a long history of serious philosophical investigations (as Cambridge too) but the university never had any reputation for any serious political philosophy. Though the university produced so many great political figures, perhaps, all the big names in British history (except Winston Churchill) and Viceroys of India, in abstract political enquiry, it didn’t go beyond Plato and Aristotle. Rather the Oxford philosophers thought that after Plato and Aristotle, there was not much to learn in politics!
Now, as for Berlin, we have to see what his contribution to political theory was.

Berlin was uniquely placed and uniquely gifted. Having been born at a time when Russia went through its most tragic and yet ideologically held upheld as a new world creation under  Lenin, overthrowing, in fact, the provisional government, a social-democratic government under Kerensky, the whole world welcomed the revolution as a new era in human history. But Berlin’s family escaped and moved out and all through the high noon of Soviet Communism, as long as it lasted, Berlin was looked upon by the British establishment as an authority and exponent of the Communist intents, first under Stalin, then, Kuruschev and later even under the Gorbachev era. When Gorbachev visited 10, Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher invited Berlin to meet the Soviet leader. So, Berlin was sought after the British and American governments, John F.Kennedy sought his opinions and the Kennedy team, a highly gifted one with so many talented individuals, also sought Berlin’s counsel.

Another area where Berlin’s knowledge and friendship counted was in relation with Israel. He knew the great leaders, Ben Gurion and other founding fathers. Berlin himself joined the Zionist movement. So, he being a Jew and also a Russian Jew and a high intellectual, Israeli leader as well as others who sought to understand Israel’s motives and moves sought his views.

The third important reason is that the rise of German Nazism and Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and here too Berlin’s views counted a great deal. The entire inter-war years in Britain were preoccupied by the argument whether “appeasement” policy toward Hitler was right or wrong.

Besides, in academic world Berlin came to early notice when he wrote a biography of Karl Marx in 1939.This was his earliest book and given the environment in which Communist evolved an unbiased academic’s account was much highly rated. Then, there were also Belrin’s interest in ideas and he was the one who wrote extensive essays and lectured on so many of the Russian thinkers, Alexander Herzen to Herder and Turgenev to Tolstoy and every one of these essays was thorough and insightful in an original sort of way. Also, his essay on French Enlightenment set him apart from the other scholars as a liberal seeking liberty and secularism as key ingredients to a more liberal and opens society.

Given these advantages, it was natural he soon established himself as a heavy-weight Oxford don and he was all through the years a sort of independent intellectual, straddling a wide range of topics and interests, not just confined to any one branch of knowledge. So, when he was appointed in 1957 as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory. He succeeded G.D.H.Cole, the great guild socialist thinker and activist.” The lectures he gave to packed halls of undergraduates between 1957 and 1965 established him as one of the most exciting teachers in the Oxford of his day”(225). The inaugural lecture,” Two Concepts of Liberty” delivered on 31 Oct 1958 remains “to be the most influential lecture he ever delivered”(225).

What did Berlin say in this lecture?

There were so many currents, mostly on the European continent, in the rise and fall of the French Revolution. Before that there was the rise of the French Enlightenment, as expounded by various philosophers. There was always the current of liberalism; there was also the current of repression and oppression of liberty under one doctrine or other. There were the great philosophical thinkers like Immanuel Kant who put forward the thesis that must be free to choose. But then, those men must choose what is rational. That only will be the true choice. Being rational means what? Men, argued Karl Marx, to put it crudely perhaps, can’t choose rationally unless they overthrown the class oppressions, men find themselves in their respective class structures. So, men, unless freed from their class opporession, are not free to choose. So, argued Berlin the European Enlightenment was divided by a central contradiction.

The liberal vs. socialist, communist versions of individual liberty, Berlin sought to give the new names as negative concept of liberty and positive concept of liberty. Given his instincts, one can guess where Berlin’s preferences lay. It is the negative concept that is critical for a true liberal and democratic choice. The state must not interfere into one’s liberties beyond a point. There is a limit to state intervention. As for the positive concept of liberty, there were too many advocates, ranging from plain “scientific” classical Marxists to the Socialists to the plain anarchists to various other advocates to reform man, to create a new man and true free individual who is nor driven by any false consciousness but acts and functions on rational lines.

To reduce so much mumbo-jumbo that was created by so many one-man army of reformers and other utopia-builders to plain realistic world, it can be said that in actual form, all these thought and movements led to Stalinism in all its horrors.

The entire generation of England’s intellectual class was thoroughly corrupted and even bought out by an excessive propaganda machine, in UK alone we saw the rise of so many movements, the Left Book Club to Harodl Laski and the Webbs, Sydny and Beatrice Webb, who visited Soviet Russia and wrote books that called the Soviet system as “new Civilisation”.Laski deployed his formidable talents to write another volume in the same belief.

From that time started the Communist bran-washing, the Indians of the times, who were studying in England were turned into Communists and they came back to establish Communism in India.

Even Pandit Nehru for a time toyed with the belief in “scientific” Socialism. So, we have Berlin’s new interpretation that suited the times, with the Second World War won and Communism undergoing some tremors when Krushchev came along and even under Gorbachev, the old structure was not given up. In the passage that deals with Belrin’s encounter with Gorbachev, there is this skepticism Berlin expressed about Gorbachev’s reforms.

But what leads to a certain disappointment that Berlin was persistent with his skepticism about the Communist crisis but he, along with others on the academic establishment, even with such talented men like the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm they couldn’t predict Communism’s imminent fall!

For that matter none of the clever and otherwise cocksure intellectuals, the pipe smoking and after dinner conservationists who abound in such convivial environments like the Oxford dinner tables were able to have any clue to the fall which eventually overtook every one by total surprise. Such is the power of intellect, be it the power of reasoning or speculation.

Berlin, though he started well with  the  opportunity to revive the Oxford political theory with  Marxism, Hegalism, Liberalism  etc. he couldn’t go far enough to create any coherent, path breaking alternative, be it new political and philosophical concepts nor any overhauling of the entire history of political ideas, as Karl Popper did in his famous” Open Society and its Enemies” Berlin never took up any public positions on the issues of the day. He didn’t sign petitions as some of his colleagues did, notably men like A.J.Ayer and others. Alan Taylor, the historian (whose lectures also I used to attend, though they were outside my courses) who in some  respects resemble Berlin and he courted controversy and for  writing about Hitler’s role in the second world war, lost his academic job and never  was to get back the Oxford recognition which he rightly deserved.

In Oxford there were certain traditions that were not always healthy or progressive. The dons took sometimes political positions and thereby gained official positions. There were always close links with the university and the 10, Downing Street. Oxford was intensely political given the Oxford Debating Union’ reputation and the political nature of the class of families that sent their wards. In the case of Berlin, there are some intriguing aspects of his personality that come out well in the biography. Why Berlin was not forthcoming when great issues of the day, in Russia and Israel erupted. His sage counsel could have guided and helped statesmen to pursue a more rational line. This Berlin failed to do.

His concepts of freedom were tentative, to say the least.
The biography deals with his own political ideas as well as his political commitments. Let us know that Berlin was never a politically committed person in the sense in which this term is understood.” Berlin tacitly defended political quietism”(227).Berlin never signed any public petitions, never took any explicit positions on the controversies of the day, though he worked for Zionism and kept in touch with the Israeli politicians.

More disturbing is the thought that his “two concepts”, though delivered at a time when the British colonies were getting liberated, his sympathies never clearly extended to the colonies, his many students at Oxford were from Asian and African countries. There is no evidence in all the maze of his writings any world on the world he was living through, his world seemed to be only UK and USA along with Soviet Russia and Isrel.Not the Arab world nor the Empire’s jewel, India or other Asian nations.

Much more shocking is his utter unconcern for the classical world, Greece and Rome. This subject was the specialized field of some of close friends, notably that of Sir Maurice Bowra, the great Greek scholar. In fact, I was drawn towards the classical world after I got to know Bowra who also woke me up to the world of Russian and European poetry on which he had written much and he gave me a whole evening of a long lecture when he invited me for a high tea at his Warden’s: Lodgings at Wadham College. Instead, as the biographer notes (page 227) that Berlin didn’t go the way Aristotle did and didn’t think politics was emancipatory, merely a necessary one”.

It is here Berlin’s serious limitations as a serious political philosopher starts. If you read through Berlin’s many of his writings, there is a repeated  going back to some obscure figures like Maistre, Vico, Herder ,Turgenev and even Machiavelli whom he rates high in taking a dim view of politics and human life.

We can now say with confidence that these figures might be worthy figures in their own right but in the mainstream political thought of the world, the world as it has come about and many isms that had threatened mankind, neither these thinkers had anything worthy to offer as a solace or Berlin helped us to know of their solutions. This is hardly worthy of a figure like Berlin who was grappling with the greatest thrusts to mankind in his times, the Stalinism and Hitlerism. His own dear friends in Russia, poets Anna Akhmatova and Pasternak paid dearly for standing up against Stalin and yet Berlin chose to adopt a very loyal lackey of the British establishment. Even in my times there were courageous academics, Alan Taylor paid a heavy price, and he lost his Regius chair because he took a radical view on Hitler, a bogus historian was nominated to the Regius chair and there others who signed petitions like A.J.Ayer and the many movement like the CND were supported by Oxford academics.

Yet, Berlin took cover   under lame excuses and yet he also didn’t produce any worthwhile wholesome volumes of any serious studies. So, we have it from Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister who whenever she met used to ask Isaiah what he was working on. He would say “not much” To which the Iron Lady” would shake her finger at him  in mock reproach:” You must work, Isaiah, you must work”(page 283).His successor in the chair, John Plamanetz,a fellow East European,(whose lectures I used to attend regularly) had in fact written some seminal volumes. His “German Marxism and Russian Communism” in particular is a classic.

Taylor’s many articles still remain unique to give us rare insights into the working of the minds of Hitler and Lenin. This is not the case with Berlin whose major articles that might remain in my opinion are the early ones on Marx, Tolstoy, Alexander Herzen (perhaps the most thorough one) and the one on Enlightenment and his long essay on his conversations with Anna Akhamatova.

In fact, we find Berlin, in retrospect, taking a more laisser-faire view of things. Even on Enlightenment he doesn’t give due role for the French philosophers as he should have and resorts to the sort of British official version in which the role of Hume, Locke and Adam Smith are over-rated. These three were the typical pro-establish conservatives who dismissed all the new ideas and ideals from the continent as unreason and illogical and unproven! These are the usual armory in the hands of enemies of reason and Enlightenment.
When it comes to Israel, there is a strange twist in Berlin’s thinking. He takes the excuse to identify himself as a Jew openly and hence he also claims his Jewishness as one of the three cardinal beliefs of his life.

In what amounts to be brief intellectual autobiography, the lecture he delivered in Jerusalem when he accepted the Jerusalem Prize, his identity he traces to Russian, British and Jewish identities. He may be right; hardly is he any different from other lesser gifted mortals and even powerful politicians!

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