Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


Isaiah Berlin’s Cold War Liberalism


Edited by Jan-Werner Müller


Palgrave Pivot Series

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019

Hardcover. viii+94 p. ISBN 978-9811327926. £49.99


Reviewed by Alexis Butin

Université Paris-Est Créteil





As we are celebrating this year the hundredth anniversary of Sir Isaiah Berlin’s birth and as almost all his work has now been published thanks to the care of his publisher Dr Henry Hardy, it is more than time to study this work from a more panoramic point of view. Indeed, if many articles and books have been published on Berlin and his writings, most of them focus on one specific aspect: liberty, value-pluralism, his analytical philosophy, his view of the Enlightenment, of the Romantic thinkers or his reading of one specific writer or group of writers. Isaiah Berlin’s work is not easy to understand because most of his writings are essays which were not always written to be published and his thought, scattered in a multitude of essays and conferences, written over different decades in various contexts, has often been criticised for being incoherent. Moreover, most of his essays were written during the Cold War and Berlin himself admitted that he had sometimes gone too far or had exaggerated his own views because of the historical circumstances and the necessity of supporting the Western camp. Hence the need to work differently on Berlin’s work so as to understand Berlin’s global project and the type of society he advocated, the historical circumstances of his intellectual production being put aside. That is what Jan-Werner Müller, Joshua L. Cherniss and Jonathan Riley have done in this book, which is comprised of four chapters.  

In the introduction (chapter 1) entitled “Concepts, Character, and the Specter of New Cold Wars”, Jan-Werner Müller remarks that Isaiah Berlin’s basic concepts and categories are still frequently used and since some commentators have noticed the emergence of a new cold war after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2016, Isaiah Berlin’s thought is currently attracting more attention. According to him, we may wonder if this analogy is relevant but what seems obvious is that concepts like nationalism, populism or authoritarianism, which were Isaiah Berlin’s centres of attention, have become more topical again. Berlin’s viewpoint would be worth studying, especially in moments of great ideological conflicts such as our own time. How should liberal thinkers behave in such circumstances? According to Berlin, facing ideological systems and faiths, liberal thinkers should not suggest another system, a counter-faith. Indeed, a civilised man should really believe in his ideas while being convinced of the fact that their validity remains relative. Hence, advocate compromise and adjustments.

Berlin was also criticised for being a muddled thinker, someone who did not really explain what his political ideas were or adapted them, depending on his audience. From this standpoint, even if Berlin maintained that conflicts, choices and losses were at the heart of life because of “value pluralism”, he would have been a man who wanted to be loved at all costs and could not stand conflicts. In fact, Berlin thought that you sometimes learned more from your enemies than from your friends, which, according to Müller, explains why the context of the Cold War would have obliged liberalism to offer its best version, i.e., social democratic liberalism or left liberalism. That is most interesting inasmuch as liberalism is too often associated to economic liberalism, neo-liberalism and the Right in Europe, whereas Berlin saw himself as a progressive thinker. Consequently, this book is about putting Berlin and his thinking in the context of the Cold War while trying at the same time to make out Berlin’s ideas, which transcend this context, in order to underline how relevant they still are for our time.

Chapter two, “Isaiah Berlin and Reinhold Niebuhr : Cold War Liberalism as an Intellectual Ethos”, written by JoshuaL. Cherniss, deals with the comparison between Berlin’s and Niebuhr's thought. The comparison is innovative for to this reviewer’s knowledge Berlin has never been compared to Niebuhr, who though not as famous as Berlin, held ideas fairly similar to his. Cherniss reminds us that many people have reproached both thinkers with defending capitalism and providing ideas to the American camp in the context of the Cold War. Cherniss’s stance is that both men defined the role of a liberal intellectual as a person who was not a militant or a crusader. Both men belonged to the non-communist left. First and foremost, their visions of Cold War liberalism were very close but presented in a different way since Niebuhr was a Christian thinker whose vision of humankind was marked by the original sin and man’s desire for domination and power whereas Berlin was a secular thinker. Moreover, both refused utopias and final solutions and believed that such projects necessarily led to bloodshed and human suffering. On the contrary, Berlin believed in pluralism i.e. the idea that values are numerous and prone to conflict because sometimes incomparable and incommensurable, which makes conflicts between them sometimes impossible to solve rationally. Yet, later in his life, he underlined that there was something like human nature inasmuch as human beings have universal needs and so, there must be things which can be considered good or bad universally. As for Niebuhr, he also defended value pluralism and insisted on the idea that when there was a conflict between different viewpoints, there was some truth in each position but these true and valid insights could never be pushed to extremes without being turned into errors. As a Christian, he believed in harmony but also that this harmony could not be obtained in this earthly world. Very logically, both authors rejected determinism in history and all teleological visions of history. A progressive vision of history was incompatible with Niebuhr’s anthropology of human sin and Berlin’s value pluralism. Nonetheless, they were not nihilist thinkers: Niebuhr did believe in Christian hope and Berlin believed that even if there was no meaning and no perfection to be attained in history, it “did not mean that all human values were baseless, and achievements meaningless” [21].

For Berlin and Niebuhr, liberal democracy should never take the same path as totalitarianism to survive. More than specific economic policies or institutional prescriptions, liberalism should produce another “ethos”, another temper: forbearance and tolerance for instance. Niebuhr praised humility so with him, we have an ethos of contrition and with Berlin, an ethos of scepticism. Their approaches are “dialectical” or “dialogic” and “essayistic” [31]. Niebuhr did not hesitate to criticise some American policies like the Vietnam War. Berlin’s stance concerning the Vietnam War was more equivocal but he refused propaganda. Thus, Berlin resigned from The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) when he learned that it was funded by the American government.

Jan-Werner Müller’s chapter, “The Contours of Cold War Liberalism (Berlin’s in Particular)”, tackles the issue of the content of this Cold War Liberalism. These Cold War liberal thinkers shared anti-determinism in history and a form of “constrained” or “tempered” value pluralism [40]. Very helpfully, Müller recalls that incompatibility and incommensurability of human values does not mean that there are not any possible rational choices among values. Berlin distinguished pluralism from relativism because he believed in a “core” of objective values which would constitute the human horizon. The question of knowing if liberalism and pluralism go together has been much debated. Most Cold War liberals like Berlin also advocated the Welfare State and were social democrats. They did not agree with Hayek and the neo-liberal paradigm. They were anti Marxists but not necessarily anti-socialists. The question which is still discussed is whether they advocated the Welfare State for strategic reasons (the fear of communism) or on the basis of principle.

Cold War liberalism is made of specific and clear political principles but what these principles mean in practice in a specific situation is a matter of political judgement and requires a sense of reality. All in all, Cold War liberalism was not a doctrine made of specific guidelines but as Berlin puts it “an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair” [56].

The final chapter, “Liberal Pluralism and Common Decency”, by Jonathan Riley, discusses the Berlinian concept of the “Decent Society”. The concept of the Decent Society is one Berlin used without really taking time to define it in depth. He just specified that a decent society avoided desperate situations and extreme sufferings. This concept was further developed by Avishai Margalit in his book The Decent Society but Margalit’s developments largely exceed the frame of Berlin’s ideas. Consequently, Riley’s project is particularly welcome. According to him, Berlin’s pluralistic liberalism is coherent even if Berlin does not create the coherent system himself. In other words, the coherence of Berlin’s thought does exist but it is like a huge jigsaw puzzle to rebuild. Riley reminds us that Berlin believed in a “minimum of common moral ground” which enabled him to combine his tragic value pluralism with negative liberty.

Riley argues that if Berlin had let each culture define what decency meant, if there had been no universal definition of decency, then in that case, Berlin would have promoted relativism. This common moral minimum is made of tragic value pluralism limited by reason. For Berlin, this pluralism is objective and universal. As a matter of fact, this pluralism is limited to give the priority to a minimum sphere of negative liberty defined and protected by a set of human rights [80]. Riley defines decent societies as societies “that respect some core set of basic human rights for everyone, with the caveat that violations of these basic rights for some people are unavoidable in emergency situations of such a nature that no decent outcomes are possible” [84]. Decent societies are not necessarily political democracies since from Berlin’s standpoint, a democracy can be illiberal. The embodiment of the indecent society is the totalitarian society even if a society may be indecent without being totalitarian. The Soviet Union illustrates the first kind of totalitarian society in which a rational utopia is expected to make all conflicts of value disappear. The Nazi society embodies the second kind of totalitarian society in which national or racial purity is looked for at all costs.

This short and beautifully presented book brings us a fresh and valuable outlook through which to discover or rediscover the writings of a man who should not be reduced to a Cold War warrior. Its major asset is to show how topical and relevant Isaiah Berlin’s considerations are. It successfully suggests a liberal perspective, an ethos for decent societies to tackle the challenges and perils they still have to face.


Cercles © 2019

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.