Hottentots and Phobias

A Conversation with Sir Isaiah Berlin


Sir Isaiah Berlin

Interviewer: Beata Polanowska-Sygulska

BP-S: Several years ago, during our first meeting, I asked you the agonising question which used to be always on my mind: “Is there any hope? If so, when is IT going to happen?” (It was the collapse of Communism that I had in mind). Your answer was: “It will happen some day because things change. Perhaps in one hundred years.” How do you feel about the great events that have taken place,* especially about independent Latvia?

IB: When we met and you asked me this question about Communism and about the Soviet regime and so on, I never conceived it possible that it would collapse so suddenly and so finally. I have a friend, the English poet Stephen Spender. In an interview which he gave he reported that he asked me: “What would you think the most wonderful thing which could happen in the world today?” I said: “The most wonderful thing would be the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism. But of course, it will not happen in our time. We shall be long dead before it happens, if it happens at all.”

BP-S: And yet it did happen…

*This interview took place at Oxford University in October 1991.

IB: It’s the sort of event which nobody predicted. The whole world was surprised. Some people were no doubt disappointed, and some people were triumphant. Extremely pleased and glad, like me. And relieved. Pleased that the world had become a better place. But I want to tell you this: The only man I ever met who predicted something like this, funnily enough, was a British ambassador in Moscow, whose name I can’t remember, about ten years ago. He and I met at some meeting in London and he said: “The Soviet Union can’t go on like this. The corruption and inefficiency are so enormous; it’s bound to collapse. It can’t go on. It can’t. The system cannot continue.” I wish I could remember who was there at that time. But I must say I remembered it after it happened. I thought: “He was the only man who prophesied it.” He was clearly a very good observer. No doubt it is the best thing which has happened towards the end of my life, so far as public events are concerned. I was always anti-communist. I was not particularly anti-left-wing. In the thirties I packed parcels for the Spanish Republic. But I saw the Russian Revolution in 1917. Anyone who had gone through it even as an innocent child, as I was at the age of eight, would have found it difficult to join the communist party later: I never knew anybody who was there at the time, and went abroad, and nevertheless later became a Leninist in the West. But of course there may have been such people.

BP-S: When I heard of independent Latvia I thought instantly of you…

IB: Well, yes, my birthplace. Riga used to be a perfectly nice little town. I last saw it in 1928. It was a republic, a little bourgeois democratic republic, provincial, not very interesting, nobody very distinguished, as far as I know, but a perfectly decent place in which people could be free and happy. It was time that the Latvians had a State of their own. Before 1910 they did not have an independent state and they had been badly treated both by Germans and by Russians. The Letts were regarded as illiterate peasants. Some were and some were not.

BP-S: Almost all contemporary doctrinal liberalisms (apart from yours) seek to formulate a theory proposing a final solution or a blueprint for a liberal society. Such liberalisms are inevitably Utopian. Yours is virtually the only exception to this. What would be your advice for a country, building up its new social order almost from scratch? People would like to know your answer.

IB: This is something about your country—I understand that. But to look to philosophers and sages to have ready answers to human problems is a mistake. The production of ideologies is not a philosopher’s business—look at what Marxism led to. Or Fichte’s nationalist writings.

BP-S: But Hayek tries to produce a blueprint. Likewise Rawls…

IB: Well, there are certain things which you can say. You can say, for example, “I don’t know whether a market society is freer than a socialist society, I’ve no clear answer to it. In some ways yes, in some ways not.” In a market society, are the poor worse off than in a planned society? Are they freer in a society where they have enough to eat, shelter, clothing, security, enough to live on, but lack political freedoms, live under rigid discipline? Of course not having to worry about where the next meal comes from is a form of liberty. But at what cost in other freedoms? I don’t know. I don’t know that there is a clear answer to that. All you can say is that most—not all—human beings in the world today are no longer bedevilled by an ideology which is fanatically rammed into them and their children, whether religious or political; that most of them live by values which are not all that dissimilar from one society to another. Of course there are vast differences. I don’t say that the Weltanschauung of the Chinese is very like that of, let us say, the Italians. Yet I would maintain that there is enough common moral ground among most human beings in terms of which they can communicate without undue difficulty. Any society will be a good liberal society in which there is a maximum degree of genuine understanding, and consequently of toleration, of other people’s views, in which the largest number of objectives can be pursued without clashing with one another too sharply; in which the greatest degree of mutual understanding occurs, between people who understand what other people want, and why, and what they need, and in what measure, and don’t try to force them into a conformity which, although these others resist it, you and you alone (you and your friends, you and your party) know to be good not only for you but for everyone else. In other words, a liberal society is a society in which there is not too much paternalism, however benevolent. Not every paternalist society is Stalinist, yet even so paternalism can do harm. Paternalist societies on the whole diminish the self-development of human beings, although in the case of a primitive or decadent society paternalism may do good.

I can’t answer your question. Herzen was once asked: “What is the purpose of life?” To which he replied: “The purpose of life is life.” Life has no universal purpose, only individual purposes—happiness, justice, kindness, freedom, knowledge, beauty, art, love, self-expression, pleasure, amusement. All these are purposes; a general purpose of life does not exist. People do ask: What is the purpose of life? To me that is a meaningless question. I am not a teleologist, not an Aristotelian or Hegelian or Marxist or Christian, or any other kind of “ist”. If you ask: What is my purpose?, What is his purpose?, Why do you do this?, What are the things you would like to see in the world?, What are your ends of life?, What are you ready to sacrifice your life to?—I think that these are intelligible questions. People do lament that life has no purpose, no meaning, that it depresses them. This happens often—but I’ve always been too stupid to understand what that means.

BP-S: John Gray’s advice for Poland was a sort of “Berlinised Popperism.” How would you comment upon this?

IB: I can’t answer that. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what “Berlinised Popperism” would be like. Popper would be very, very angry at this suggestion.

BP-S: Gray’s idea was that we should, in this period of transition, apply Popper’s advice of the trial and error method.

IB: I have nothing against that. I think that the idea of social engineering, of trial and error, is a very good piece of advice, but sometimes it doesn’t work. There are crises, critical situations, when you have to act in a much more decisive way. It is no use telling the people who crushed the putsch in the old Soviet Union—don’t do too much all at once, use trial and error to see if you can get consensus, why don’t you try a little social engineering? That would not do. What is the use of saying this to Nazis, to the Ayatollahs, to Stalin? I am, of course, all in favour of freedom, tolerance, reason, an open, loose texture of society; but not when you have to reconstruct a society which has been cruelly crushed, to which liberty, even relative liberty, is something comparatively new and unfamiliar. There, I think, decisive steps have to be taken, even though they may fail—but at least let us try.

There’s no general rule, not even Popper’s humane approach, based on the methods of the sciences, however sympathetically adjusted to particular problems and situations.

Herzen, a socialist, warned against substituting one yoke for another. He denounced the early pre-Marxist Cabet, and others like him, and talked of the slave galleys of the commune. Some of the early communists of the 1840s wanted a complete socialisation of the whole of life—that is what Herzen called substituting one yoke for another. You strike off the yoke of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, and you end with another yoke—exactly what happened to poor Russia. Herzen was a libertarian, and very conscious of this danger. That is why I can’t say, a bit of Popper, a bit of me. There’s no need to read either Popper or me. One must simply follow the normal moral instincts. On the whole, I don’t believe that knowledge of what is decent has been knocked out of people by the rule of communism. And other things have also survived: look at the Church—Stalin didn’t succeed in suppressing it—he kept it down, but as soon as he disappeared, as soon as communism lifted, it popped up again, sometimes in a reactionary guise. So, too, with nationalism: held down by communist regimes but not destroyed. I am optimistic enough to believe that there are certain basic human needs, wishes, values, and all I ask for is the breakdown of prison houses, if need be by decisive action, and for enough opportunity to be given for at any rate some of the central values to realise themselves at some but not too much cost to other ones. It’s a very dreary piece of advice. It recommends trade-offs—I talked about that in the Agnelli lecture. Alas, it is not a waving flag, not something which young men can find inspiring, by looking for radical solutions, altars to which one can courageously bring great sacrifices. But I cannot help thinking that if idle bloodshed is to be avoided, my dull solution is valid.

BP-S: You seem to be the only liberal thinker who, rejecting the concept of universal civilisation, has recognised the power of nationalist ideology. What is the source of nationalism? Is there anything we can do to moderate its expansion?

IB: First of all, nationalism is something which hasn’t always existed, but tribalism always has. There’s a desire to belong—Herder described this desire as basic, a deep human need. There is a basic human need to live among one’s own, to be able to live among people who understand what you say without explanation, who understand your gestures, who understand the meaning of your behaviour, almost by instinct, where there is no need to explain yourself—in short, where you are among your own. I think that I said that in my lecture. I had a Montenegran friend who said: “To be solitary means, not to be alone, but to be in a society where nobody understands what you mean.” And you want to be in a society where people know you and what you mean without you having to make it clear in so many words. That’s what being at home is. Hegel said that “Freiheit ist bei sich selbst sein”—freedom is to be at home. It seems to me a profound remark. This is not nationalism, but a sense of nationality, a national consciousness, of being part of a nation. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

Nationalism is a pathological inflammation of national consciousness. Its symptoms are saying and believing that my nation is better than yours; and I’m going to annex you, or at least assimilate you to my pattern. I know how to live, because I belong to a nation which is full of hereditary wisdom, whereas you are degenerate or barbarian. I am civilised, which gives me a right to force you to lead my life, or minister to it, obey its laws, whether you like or understand them or not. It happens when I say that I act thus not because it is right but because I am a German, a Frenchman, a Zulu, and that is the German/French/Zulu way, its mission, the root of its authority. So long as there is pride, conceit, vanity, desire for power and desire for domination—cruel wars, massacres, enslavement, humiliation, trampling on the rights of strangers, “inferior” races, groups, individuals will continue. If you give me a recipe for teaching people not to want to dominate, not to seek power, not to believe that the superior quality of your nation or race (or church, party, culture) entitles you to force others to obey, then there might be a solution. So long as that goes on, particularly among those groups who are reacting against their own past humiliation by other groups, the possibility of aggressive nationalism can never either be eliminated or ignored.

BP-S: When I posed the problem of nationalism I especially had in mind, as you can guess, anti-semitism. Is there anything that distinguishes it from all other forms of nationalism?

IB: I think that anti-semitism is an awkward problem. What well-meaning persons usually say about it is that it is due to the fact that people need a scapegoat, people need somebody to blame for their own failings or misfortunes, someone who is not one of their own. Again, it is said that Jews have always kept themselves to themselves, isolated themselves, were compelled by their religion to marry only each other, hence they were felt to be a foreign element, a cause of discomfort, at times of irritation, to the rest of society—even a threat to its integrity. Let me offer you a parable. Supposing you and I found ourselves in a society about which we knew very little, let us call it Hottentot society. We don’t know the Hottentot language or customs, and we therefore feel unprotected and afraid. We are strangers among foreigners. So in order to get our bearings we learn the Hottentot language and study the customs, we do our best to understand the world in which we now live and adjust ourselves to it. We succeed. As a result of this tremendous effort to learn about these people who are not our own, we cannot help becoming experts on the Hottentots. We write Hottentot dictionaries and encyclopaedias, we explain the Hottentot soul to non-Hottentots. We do so because to survive we have to find out what is likely to occur, how the Hottentots will behave or act. They don’t have to find this out. They just do what they do, are what they are, live their normal lives; whereas we have to observe and predict. All minorities have to be aware, sometimes uneasily, of what the majority do. In good times the Hottentots like us, because we have become propagandists for Hottentotology. But in bad times, because we are obliged to know the truth, because our lives depend on it, and we report this—because of this we become unpopular: people don’t like to be told of faults, failures, misfortunes. Like doctors, whose diagnoses and prognoses can be unfavourable, we cause annoyance, even hatred. We feel that this is unjust: we say to them “Why do you persecute us? We’ve done more for you than you’ve done for yourselves.” To which they reply “That is exactly the point—you’ve done things for us but not as part of us. Yes, you may do things for us, but you are not identical with us. You are you—you may try hard but that is because you are different.” That is the basic fate of minorities, particularly minorities whose lives depend on trying to assimilate—sometimes trying too much—to the majority—from a sense of insecurity.

Goethe was a German, a great poet who wrote about nature, love, beauty, the classical world, human life and destiny, about the spirit in all its manifestations. Because he was a German, he was a great German poet. Heine was also a great poet, a German poet, but he often thought and wrote about what it is to be a German. He was a poet of genius, and he wrote in German, but he is deeply concerned with what it is to be a German, historically, politically, spiritually—all this precisely because he is not a German among Germans, and he is very self-conscious about this. So he went to live in Paris and viewed Germany from outside.

Felix Mendelssohn was a truly devout Lutheran and a very German composer. It was he who created the Bach Gesellschaft to revive the great Lutheran musical tradition. He was more German than the Germans—he almost overdid it. Schumann, Brahms were German composers tout court.

There was the German Jewish musician Hermann Levi, who was employed by Richard Wagner at Bayreuth—a pianist and conductor. Wagner, of course, was acutely anti-semitic. Levi wrote to his father, a rabbi, to say he could not live like this, that Wagner had said awful things about Jews at lunch, and that Cosima, his wife, was even worse; but that unbearable as this was, Wagner’s genius was so great that he could not bring himself to leave Bayreuth. Then he met Franz Liszt, Wagner’s father-in-law, and known as a kindly man. Liszt said, “Herr Levi, why don’t you change your name?” Levi said “Why should I change it?” Liszt replied “Aber Herr Levi, man ist nicht Jude.”—one just isn’t a Jew. A Jew cannot function properly in ordinary society. That was the view of a decent man, trying to be helpful. Truly civilised people are not liable to anti-semitism, or, at least, not to excessive feeling of it. But the number of wholly decent, civilised people is not—has never been—great.

The existence of Israel, although it saved the Jews from inferior status, has not diminished unfriendly feelings for them, especially given their behaviour towards their Arab population. Still, assimilation does work—not much, but it does. The grandchildren of intermarriages do, as a rule, cease to be, or be thought to be, Jews. But the rate of this evaporation, whatever may be thought of it, is very low. Jews can be wholly free only in Israel. Israelis are natives of a country of their own: no minority complexes, normalisation at last.

BP-S: Have you ever personally encountered cases of ‘exaggerated assimilation’?

IB: I once met a German Jewish refugee, I think in 1934, in London. He’d fought in the German army in the First World War, and been decorated. I said to him “You got away from Germany quite early, you were lucky. Where did you go?” “I went to Switzerland,” he replied. I said “But didn’t you find Switzerland a little dull?” “Yes, very.” “Then why didn’t you go to Paris, surely much more interesting?” He drew himself up and said “I would never dream of going to the country of our enemies.” He was a German patriot. Driven out by Hitler as a Jew, a pariah, a menace, he still displayed his medals—that is being a member of a minority who lived in a deep illusion.

When people try and live with another people with whom they strive to identify themselves, they tend to go too far in their zeal, to exaggerate and overdo it. People don’t like apes and parrots. They don’t like to be imitated, or, in the case of Heine, to be mocked. A famous American humorist, Dorothy Parker, who was Jewish, is alleged to have said “The Jews are just like everybody else, only more so.”

Finally, the most important cause of anti-semitism in my opinion—the Gospels, the Christian Gospels. They tell the story of the crucifixion, of the murder, of God, or the Son of God, by the Jews. You are, let us say, a little Christian child; you go to a Sunday School and you have somebody who teaches you the story of Christ. You’ve never met a Jew, the word may mean nothing to you. But you are told that persons called Jews perpetrated this unbelievable crime and sin, the central fact of your religion. Consequently a cloud falls over the word “Jew.” One day you meet people known as Jews. You cannot, even if only subconsciously, but have a sense in the back of your head that there is something slightly sinister about them. There is something not quite good about being a Jew, even if you don’t think about the story in the Gospels. That creates an ember, a little glowing centre, which does not necessarily develop into a fire. Winds can blow it into a flame: winds—political, economic, religious, nationalistic, xenophobic—blow it into a conflagration. Without such winds it may glow without much harm being done. But my theory is that if there hadn’t been an ember, there could not be a flame. Other equally passionate and often intolerant religions—Islam, Hinduism—while their followers may at times be hostile to or even persecute Jews, do not have built into them the deep, unceasing, indelible Judaeophobia characteristic of the entire Christian tradition. No matter how often Popes, bishops, churchmen of various denominations, deplore this, and deny Jewish responsibility for deicide, it persists in the Church and Christian culture—and, it seems to me, is bound to continue to do so, as long as the simple, unmodified, uninterpreted message of the Gospels is taught. This is its real root. Sad, but, I fear, true. Other minorities come from lands where they are a majority. The Jews are a minority everywhere, and thus unique. Everywhere, except now, at last, in Israel. That is the case for Israel, in my view. Of course anti-semitism, which lives on, becomes acute only if certain circumstances arise—when the Church is fanatical, or if the economic situation is desperate—and those who are looking for a solution are told that it is all the Jews’ fault, or, as in the Middle Ages, that Jews poison the wells; or as some modern Jew-haters, in Eastern Europe, or Muslim lands, are saying, “The secret society of the Elders of Zion is spreading AIDS to kill Christians,” and so on.

BP-S: Yet, on the other hand, do not Jews’ own reactions strike you quite often as exaggerated? Andrzej Wajda once made a moving film on Janusz Korczak…

IB: I know about Korczak. He died in a camp. He went voluntarily with the children he looked after.

BP-S: The film was shown in Cannes, and then it was refused distribution in France.

IB: Because?

BP-S: Because it is anti-semitic.

IB: Oh, how funny.

BP-S: The film was made by a Pole, so by definition it has to be anti-semitic. Actually, it is the other way round.

IB: I understand. It’s pro-Korczak. Korczak is a hero and a martyr.

BP-S: Prejudices and phobias pile up and up until people lose common sense. Then you’ve got anti-anti-semitism.

IB: It’s a terrible issue. It spoils everything. Anybody who is at all unpleasant to a Jew is immediately accused of anti-semitism. Because of Hitler it has become a terribly sensitive and delicate issue for everybody with any human feeling. I do not, myself, react to anti-semitism of the moderate kind. When people say that a certain person is an anti-semite, I usually ask: “Normal anti-semite or more than that?” Normal anti-semitism is no worse than irrational dislike of the French, of the Germans, what many Poles feel towards Russians, and vice versa. Ethnic hostility is a bad thing, but one can live with it. That’s why I don’t want to feel too strongly about this; I think there always will be people who hate the English, or the Jews, or the Arabs, or the Negroes. It can’t be avoided. It’s very regrettable, and does harm, but it is perhaps too optimistic to think that it can be wholly eliminated. I hope I’m wrong, I do indeed, but unfortunately I don’t think I am.

BP-S: And a Polish accent at the end. In a letter to me of 29 May 1990 you refer to a paper given by Adam Michnik at a seminar in Bratislava on the relationship between ethics and politics. Michnik discusses the two cultures symbolised by two eminent Russian activists of the anti-communist opposition—Andrei Sakharov and Igor Shafarevich. How would you comment upon Michnik’s recognition of what he calls the basic contest of our time?

IB: I can’t remember exactly what Michnik said, only that I greatly admired it. It was reprinted in the New York Review of Books. I read the article somewhere and sent it to the editor of the New York Review of Books and recommended it.

Sakharov is the nearest to a real saint that I have ever met in my life. Apart from his courage and his integrity, he was a very good man, and wonderful to be with. Sakharov believed in human decency. He believed in toleration. He hated nationalism. He believed in rational investigation, science. That’s what the old Russian intelligentsia believed in. He believed that personal relations between people are of great importance. He was not fanatical in any way; he was not a victim of an ideology. You see, Shafarevich is a man who thinks that any foreign element in Russia is dangerous. That Jews poison wells. That Jews fundamentally are hostile to Russia, for whatever historical reason, and therefore must be removed. That is acute chauvinism. A less chauvinistic man than Sakharov I have never met in my life. But he was not a kind of, you know what I mean, amiable cosmopolitan. He was a profound Russian patriot. He thought about Russia all the time, and about the rest of the world not so much. Russia was what mattered to him. He wanted it to be a country of honourable, decent, tolerant, truth-seeking, honest people. He didn’t want much more than that. Even that’s asking for a great deal. What he hated was any form of fanaticism, zealotry, pursuit of one end at the expense of all others, bitter dedication to some final goal which produces blinkers that exclude from vision most of what there is in the world—something that Americans call “tunnel vision.” As someone said of the present Prime Minister of Israel (a Pole, I fear), apropos of “light at the end of the tunnel”—“At the end of the tunnel there is darkness.” Solzhenitsyn seems to me to resemble the Russian Old Believers of the seventeenth century. He knows where the truth lies. He knows what sort of Russia he seeks. He knows that there is a devil on the throne. He knows that communism is the devil. He knows that liberalism is a form of weakness that undermines true faith. He’s a religious man and a nationalist, he knows that he knows the difference between good and evil, and he does not allow any deviation from the direct march towards the clearly perceived universal goal, or at least the Russian goal. This can cause a good deal of human suffering. I think Michnik’s piece was very good, particularly on modern Poland. It calls for what Russian liberals in the nineteenth century wanted, people like Herzen, like Turgenev, like Belinsky—not Tolstoy, who is another story, nor Dostoevsky, who is yet another story. But what was called the intelligentsia, a Russian word—some people say Polish, I can’t tell, certainly it is a Russian idea—what the intelligentsia wanted was probably morally and politically the most humane culture imagined in the last two centuries. That’s what Leninism tried to extinguish, but it survived. Just as nationalism survived Stalin, so this kind of liberalism, to my great surprise and astonishment and pleasure, has survived. If you talk to young people in Russia, and I’m sure the same is true of Poland, they are imaginative, civilised, honest, humane, spontaneous—they want to live and let live, and they’ve great faith in the future of human decency and goodness. Decent society is what the liberals wanted; and that is what the intelligentsia wanted and wants. They thought that the Tsarist regime, the Orthodox Church and other institutions like that suppressed it. Herzen thought socialism would provide it. Well, it hasn’t. The Left wing, whatever its original ideas, has, to a degree, collapsed, perhaps more so than it deserves, because it was compromised by association with Soviet Communism. Even honourable, non-Communist leftists somehow believed, some of them, that while the Soviet Union was in many ways wrong and wicked, yet still, in the end, it was on the right side: they commit crimes, but still, in a sense, they’re marching in our direction. That is what compromised the Left everywhere. This was a terrible illusion. Now, there may be an opportunity for them to reconstitute themselves in a more honourable form. Who can say whether they can or will? Michnik’s voice is the voice of Sakharov and Herzen—I can’t praise anyone more than that. Herzen was exceptional in many ways, but among them in that he did not dislike the Poles—he had worked with them in London—and what other Russians can one say that of?

BP-S: Coming back to hatreds among nations—if it is impossible to eliminate them entirely, can their strength be at least moderated?

IB: Germans no longer hate the French as they did, nor the French the Germans.

BP-S: What was the original source of hatred between the Germans and the French?

IB: Well, the Germans became the great power quite late in history. France was the glorious power of the seventeenth century—Le Roi Soleil—Louis XIV—the French had everything, everything in the world. They had all the arts, they had political power, philosophy, they were the summit of Europe. They were a top nation in every branch of human activity. They looked on the Germans in a patronising way, as beer-drinking, primitive peasants, smoking long pipes. In the end, people don’t like to be patronized and despised. And there was a backlash. The Germans of the eighteenth century duly became Francophobes. After Napoleon’s war this became acute. And after that, German nationalism rose as a huge resentful defensive phenomenon, aggressive—and, as we know, caused two terrible wars.

BP-S: Have the Germans and the French already got over those bad times?

IB: It seems to me that they all get on quite well—I may be wrong, but I think they do.

BP-S: So it can be done.

IB: It can be done. Don’t let us despair. Nil desperandum.