Rediscovering Isaiah Berlin

  • 2015-07-02
  • By Michael Mustillo

RIGA - Born in Riga back in 1909, Isaiah Berlin grew up to become one of the 20th century’s great thinkers. A titan of liberalism, his ideas resonated across the world.

The man himself is long gone. He passed away in 1997. But this city has not forgotten him. Every June 6 is Isaiah Berlin Day.

Taking place on the great man’s birthday, Isaiah Berlin Day has been a ponderer’s dream:  ever since the event’s inception in 2009, wise men and women have trotted to Riga from across the world to meet up and mull over ideas.

But this year’s event was a reality check. One of the guiding forces of the event has always been George Soros, the billionaire financier and philanthropist. This year, Soros was no longer so keen to support the event.

Due to the George Soros Foundation Latvia’s funding overhaul, this year’s Isaiah Berlin Day was smaller in attendance, if not in the scale of its ambitions.

Held in the magnificent Column Hall at the Museum of History and Navigation, organisers this year were resolved to make sure it would still be an event Berlin would have been proud of. “Isaiah Berlin Day is a symbol of continuity in two senses,” went the welcoming remarks given by Ivards Ijabs, chairman of the Board at DOTS — a charitable foundation started by George Soros which organised this year’s event.

“First of all,” continued Ijabs, “the figure of Isaiah Berlin is of course for us here in Latvia a symbol of continuity of liberal culture — of multiculturalism, free exchange of thought — which links us with the time when Isaiah Berlin and his family were residing in here Riga.”

“But Isaiah Berlin is also the figure of continuity in a second sense, the institutional sense,” Ijabs added. “Despite the absence of the previous generous funding, we are keeping our previous aims and our previous values.”

Fortifying Democracy

Ijabs also noted that the Foundation for an Open Society DOTS has initiated and is organising Lampa — Latvia’s first open air debate festival — in the small, picturesque Latvian town of Cesis. Taking place on July 3-4 at Cesis castle, this festival of democracy — which has become a new tradition in the Nordic countries — aims to create a platform for citizen engagement in social and civic processes, enhancing and fortifying Latvia’s democratic development.

The festival offers conversations on every genre and topic, as well as unique cultural events. For example, there’ll be innovative theatre performances and installations aplenty.

The organizers of the LAMPA festival hope to encourage conversations among all the people in Latvia to elicit engagement in the political events unfolding around them.

Everyone who cares about the future of Latvia is invited. “We believe that people in Latvia would be better off, if everyone found ways to engage in social and civic issues. The festival will offer an environment, where such engagement is made possible in ways outside the mainstream –  approaching issues important to Latvia’s democratic development with a light touch, with humour, with wisdom” said Ieva Morica, the festival’s organizer and one of the initiators who also serves as Executive Director of the Foundation for an Open Society DOTS.

“In a number of Nordic countries, similar festivals have become a symbol of democracy, a place where key issues of development are subject to open and spirited debate. If Latvia is finally ready for such a festival, this marks the beginning of larger, positive change, similar to how the charity organization “” created a new culture of philanthropy, or the organization “Mission Possible” raised the bar for quality in education.” said Maris Macinskis, Chairman of the Board of Swedbank, one of the organizers and initiators of the event.

Back to Berlin

But back to Isaiah Berlin Day. 2015’s programme featured three events: there was a youth debate; there was a screening of David Herman’s iconic BBC2 documentary about Isaiah Berlin, where Berlin was interviewed by the Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff about nationalism and the fall of Soviet Communism in 1991.

The event concluded with the seventh annual Isaiah Berlin Memorial Lecture. This year it was delivered by Henry Hardy, one of the seminal editors of Berlin’s works. A literary trustee of Berlin’s works, he gave the audience a magesterial talk on Isaiah Berlin’s view of Human Nature and the 20th century.

Berlin viewed the 20th century as a terrible century for the horrors that it contained, according to Hardy’s talk. “The worst century that has ever been,” as Berlin himself once put it. When viewed in terms of the scale of human cruelty and the brutal destruction of mankind, there has been no worse century.

“The most disastrous idea for Berlin was that there was no single solution for human problems, one right way for us to live,” said Hardy. “He insisted that this idea is false, evoking his familiar doctrine that the values we subscribe to and the cultures they help to compose are often incompatible.”

“There is no uniquely correct resolution of conflicts between them. This is his main argument when he rejects ideologically driven political violence of the kind resorted to by fundamentalists, fanatics, and extremists of all kinds,”  said Hardy.  

In introducing Hardy’s Berlin Memorial Lecture, Robert Cottrell, founder of the Isaiah Berlin Association Latvia, noted that “the purpose of the nature of this Memorial Lecture is that we can remember, celebrate and profit from Isaiah Berlin’s association with the city of Riga.”

Berlin, who Hardy met in 1972, was his friend, colleague and editor for 25 years. Hardy mentioned that Berlin was at that point “at the height of his fame as an intellectual figure; but he was viewed as not having written very much, and many doubted if he would leave a lasting contribution to scholarship beyond a small number of scattered essays.”

Hardy’s research revealed that Berlin had published well over 150 pieces by the late 1970s.

Hardy’s subsequent editing of Berlin’s essays made Berlin’s most important work widely available. Hardy has since 1990 worked full-time on Berlin’s unpublished essays, lectures, and correspondences. He has to date (co-)edited 17 volumes of Berlin’s writings (plus new editions of 10 of these volumes), as well as a 4-volume edition of Berlin’s letters whose last volume will be published later this year, and 3 books about Berlin. Cottrell described Hardy as “One of the finest editors on God’s Green earth.”

“What Hardy’s work has done is to give Isaiah Berlin’s work a structure; and it is a monumental structure,” said Cottrell.

“Berlin was one of the greatest conversationalist of his time.  A mantel he inherited from Virginia Woolf and passed to Tom Stoppard. That Berlin may be lost to us,” continued Cottrell.

His ideas, however, thanks to the tireless work of Hardy, are not lost to us. They still matter and they could serve as a blueprint for Latvian society, notes Irina Kuzencova, the event’s coordinator. “Isaiah Berlin is a prominent liberal thinker and historian of ideas, whose ideas on freedom and value pluralism we wish to promote in Latvia,” she said. “We believe that individual freedom and value pluralism are essential elements of a democratic society and culture.”

Documenting the past

Former BBC producer David Herman was in town to see the showing of his 1990s documentary. He told The Baltic Times that he had met Isaiah Berlin on a number of occasions during the 1990s when he produced three programmes for the BBC with Michael Ignatieff. The film which was shown in Riga was the one made in 1992 and the only one shown during Berlin’s life time. The two other programmes filmed for the BBC in 1995 were only shown after Berlin’s death in 1997.

“Berlin was charming, friendly, decent. He was already in his 80s when I met him. He was at his heyday in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. By that, I mean that was when he was most famous as a political philosopher, but also when he was an enormously exciting speaker. He was incredibly fluent — a famous and brilliant speaker, who lectured on the radio and whose lectures at Oxford were famous events,” said Herman.

During 20 years as a TV producer, Herman was able to meet many great figures: from Stephen Spielberg to Lauren Bacall, from Yoko Ono to Czeslaw Milosz, and from Saul Bellow to Leszek Kolakowski. “But Berlin was one of the most interesting men I ever met: he was a great liberal philosopher, famous for his ideas about pluralism and liberalism, but he also had a fascinating life, serving in the Second World War, visiting Communist Russia in 1945-46 where he met Akhmatova and Pasternak. He met Churchill and Kennedy, Keynes, Freud and Wittgenstein’’ said Herman.

Herman recounted that “Berlin hardly ever wrote or spoke about the Holocaust. Many of his Jewish relatives were killed in Latvia but it was a subject he didn’t go near. He wrote about Soviet Communism, which he hated, but not Nazism.”

“Some believe this is because it was too sad a subject for him,” Herman said. “Others think it was out of guilt: he could have spoken out about the Holocaust during the war but didn’t. He claimed he didn’t know what was happening in central and east Europe. I am sorry but I don’t believe this. As a British official working in Washington during the war, few people were more likely to know what was happening to the Jews of Europe. Even more strange, his wartime letters hardly ever refer to his family in Latvia and their fate. We didn’t discuss this on any of the occasions when I met him but I think there was an element of cowardice in his silence. He didn’t want to rock the boat and cause trouble by speaking out about the Holocaust then - or later. An interesting example is when he wrote to TS Eliot attacking Eliot’s famously anti-semitic views. But he was very restrained and didn’t accuse Eliot of anti-semitism in public.”

Berlin did not address some of the great social movements of his time: feminism, civil rights and later gay rights. But, as Herman points out, we have to “remember he was born in 1909 so he was almost 60 in 1968.”

“In fact, if you read his letters from the Sixties you can see that he felt very out of place. The late Sixties and 1970s were a low point in his career. He was attacked by the New Left, critics like Perry Anderson and Christopher Hitchens. His letters from the time show how he identified with one of his favourite Russian writers, Turgenev: a liberal who felt out of touch with the new more radical young generation of Russians. Berlin felt the same in Britain. Like his contemporary Saul Bellow the Sixties were not a happy time for him. He had little sympathy for student radicals, feminists or Third World liberation movements,” said Herman.

“However, remember that he did address big issues of his time: he was a passionate critic of Soviet Communism and Marxist determinism; he championed Zionism; and in the last ten years of his life, Berlin’s liberal ideas became more relevant at a time when Europe was haunted by old ghosts: nationalism, anti-semitism, irrationalism. Recently, a new generation of political writers and thinkers, have returned to Berlin’s ideas when writing about some of the problems that face us today — writers like Tim Garton Ash, Ian Buruma, John Gray, Michael Ignatieff and the late Tony Judt. When my BBC programme with Berlin (1992) was shown in Riga in June a number of people said how very topical it seemed almost 25 years later’’ said Herman.

Refuge in London

On 2 July, Herman will be curating one of the summer’s most important exhibitions at Somerset House, a beautiful neo-classical building in central London. 70 of the best works from the collection of the Ben Uri Gallery in London will be showing there.

The exhibition will continue until 13 December. “It marks 100 years since the Ben Uri was founded. There are works by British artists (Bomberg, Gertler, Isaac Rosenberg, Jacob Kramer, Leon Kossoff), European refugees (Jankel Adler and Josef Herman from Poland, Martin Bloch and Ludwig Meidner from Germany), child refugees who came to Britain as young childeren in the 1930s (Frank Auerbach, Eva Frankfurther) and European artists (Chagall, Chaim Soutine, George Grosz)’’ said Herman.

Named after the biblical figure from the Old Testament, The Ben Uri Museum in London was originally founded in the East End of London in 1915 by a group of Jewish immigrants, including a decorative artist (a Russian emigre) called Lazar Berson. “1915 was a curious moment. It was a time when Jewish immigrants from the Russian Pale (1890-1920) founded a number of cultural and political organizations in the Jewish East End. But at the same time  it was the highpoint of Modernism, when a new generation of young immigrant artists (born in England of Russian Jewish parents or born in the Russian Pale but then brought up in Britain) painted Jewish subjects with a Modernist twist. The best known of these artists were David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Isaac Rosenberg and Jacob Kramer,” said Herman.

“Then in the 1930s came a second generation of Jewish artists: refugees from Nazi Europe, esp. Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Although they came to Britain in the 1930s their real impact was felt in Britain in the 1940s and especially the 1950s. These included my father, Josef Herman, born in Warsaw in 1911 who came to Britain from France as a refugee in 1940. The Ben Uri was a natural home for these Jewish artists. It exhibited and bought their work and supported them. It continued to support mainly Jewish artists, many of them women, most of them British, European or Israeli,” he said.

While Berlin was one of the great erudites, the lack of engagement with many of the social causes in his later years is striking. The Baltic Times asked Hardy about Berlin’s lack of engagement with ‘the great social and cultural changes of his time’.

“I think this, to the extent that it is true, is due to his lack of interest in ‘day-to-day’ politics — as he explained in an interview with Ignatieff: “I was never interested in politics as such, in spite of being Professor of it. Politics were not at the centre of my thought. […] I wasn’t interested in day-to-day events; I was more interested in what might be called (it sounds a very conceited thing to say) – the more permanent aspects of the human world.”

Berlin believed that the whole of his ideas were deeply affected by British empiricism. “One only knows what one knows, or thinks what one thinks, as a result of experience. By experience I mean the five senses and everything which goes with them – thought, imagination and the five senses. But not from some transcendent source.”

Hardy added that for Berlin “the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature.”

For Berlin, “education was also crucial in maintaining a decent society,” said Hardy.

Berlin was to become the first Jew to have been elected into All Souls College at the University of Oxford, and which became a topic of attention for much of British society.

Back to Riga?

As to his relationship with Riga, in his later life, Berlin was to make few statements about his early years in Riga; never did he express explicit nostalgia for the city.

It was perhaps the fate of his family in Riga which deeply shocked Berlin, and was perhaps a contributing factor which was to reinforce his lifelong commitment against totalitarianism and political intolerance. All of Isaiah Berlin’s relatives in Riga were murdered in the Nazi terror, a plight befalling many of Latvia’s Jews.

Following a brief period of illness in 1997, then aged 88, Isaiah Berlin was to die in Oxford. “I don’t mind death,” he once said, “but I find dying a nuisance. I object to it. I’d rather it did not happen … I’m terribly curious. I’d like to live forever”.

Further information on the Festival Lampa can be found on the website

Further information about Isaiah Berlin Day and the life and works of Isaiah Berlin can be found on the website