Intellectual Riga

Isaiah Berlin

Festival Preview

The philosophy of giving people room to make their own choices. By Robert Cottrell.

What makes Isaiah Berlin so congenial as a philosopher and as a historian is his acceptance of contradictions.

He said, in effect, that the human condition is a muddle. Different people have different priorities, different ambitions. Within reason, it is better to resign ourselves to this fact, than to embrace any grand scheme for forcing more order onto humankind.

The best form of government is the one that leaves the individual enough space to make his or her own choices. The safeguarding of this private space is the core value that Berlin called negative liberty, the absence of coercion.

Berlin’s opposition to grand schemes of government made him an early and dogged opponent of Marxism. By the time he died at 88, in 1997, he had seen Soviet communism collapse. But although an enemy of communism, he was a lover of Russia and of Russian culture. His native city, Riga, the capital of Latvia, was part of the Russian empire at the time of his birth in 1909. One of his great delights, after decades of living in England, was to be taken for a Russian when visiting Russia.

In June, Riga will celebrate the centenary of Berlin’s birth. In a series of talks and discussions from 1-6 June, speakers including Avishai Margalit, Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma will debate how Berlin’s Jewish, Latvian and Russian heritage shaped his view of the world, and how his ideas can now be used as a framework for addressing the problems of post-communist Europe.

Berlin’s acceptance of contradictions extended to his own thinking and writing. In principle, he was a pluralist, arguing that different communities were entitled, like individuals, to settle on different priorities and ambitions. In practice, he was a European liberal. He believed in fundamental human rights, and universal notions of human decency-ideas that tended to conflict with any meaningful form of pluralism.

And it is exactly these contradictions in Berlin’s thinking that give it its strength, because they are vindicated, time and again, by history. Post-communist Europe today displays exactly the tensions between liberalism and nationalism, universal values and cultural differences, that Berlin would have expected and understood. Those tensions are at their most acute in Russia, and in Russia's relations with its former subject states, such as Latvia.

What would Berlin prescribe for eastern Europe today? In Riga this June, we shall speculate. My own guess is that he would want Russians and their neighbours to find a language of mutual courtesy; to accept that differing views about democracy and history can be sincerely held on both sides; and to emphasise common values, such as they are, rather than political differences. He would, I am sure, be horrified by the current Russian authoritarianism. But he would also think it a less bad system than communism-and thus a cause for hope as well as for dismay.