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The Power of Ideas by Isaiah Berlin

Antony Flew devours a vastly varied collection of essays by the late Isaiah Berlin.

The title for this selection from Berlin’s essays is ideally descriptive of what the editor has actually produced. One effect of a collection of all Berlin’s essays, or of any selection there from, is always to reveal something of the power of ideas as an historical force; the prime purpose of this collection was to reveal this power as fully and as clearly as possible to those who have never before had the instructive delight of reading anything by Berlin.

These eighteen essays begin with the autobiographical ‘My Intellectual Path’. This shows how Berlin came by his sympathy with all the great European cultural traditions and his appreciation of all their greatest individual figures. After considering ‘The Purpose of Philosophy’ and ‘The Philosophies of the Enlightenment’ we move onto Giambattista Vico. He certainly was ‘One of the Boldest Innovators in the History of Human Thought’, but he appears to continue to be one of the least read.

After that we go on to one of Berlin’s specialities. Of the five essays on aspects of the intellectual history of Russia, the one of greatest interest today is that on ‘The Father of Russian Marxism’, G.V. Plekhanov, who was consistently, and from the beginning, opposed to Leninism. As early as 1905 he declared that “the ultimate goal of Lenin’s tactics was his own personal dictatorship.” To this he added that “if socialism were imposed by force it would lead to a political deformation like that of the Chinese or Peruvian empires.” Anyone old enough to remember that, until Germany attacked the USSR, the Communist parties of all countries denounced World War II as an imperialist war, will be interested to learn that while the Bolsheviks denounced World War I unreservedly and in similar terms, Plekhanov argued that “the triumph of Prussian and Austrian militarism was incomparably more dangerous to socialism than the victory of the Western democracies engaged in self defence.”

Three of the later essays are devoted to the fascinating stories of ‘The Origins of Israel’, ‘Jewish Slavery and Emancipation’ and ‘Chaim Weizmann’s Leadership’. All three are essays which, on account of some of his other interests, Berlin was particularly well qualified to write. He insists, “But for the character and needs of the Eastern European Jews there would have been no Israel. They were, in that sense, absolutely sine quibus non; to grasp their role is indispensable to the understanding of what happened later.” Thus Berlin is able to state that “Any student of political institutions who wishes to understand the state of Israel must remember that its political parties derive from Russian Westernism, Russian liberal enlightenment, the ideas and aspirations which united the entire opposition to Tsarist oppression, and were, after their short-lived triumphs, so easily and cynically thrown overboard by the Bolsheviks.”

For anyone with an interest in the history of ideas this book is full of entertaining understanding. Consider, for instance, this comment upon the nineteenthcentury Russian intelligentsia, for whom “the very notion of a class of persons involved in intellectual pursuits such as professors, doctors, engineers, experts, writers, who in other respects lead ordinary bourgeois lives, and hold conventional views, and who play golf or even cricket – this notion would have been absolutely horrifying. If a man was a professor in late nineteenth-century Russia, then the mere fact of his involvement with ideas made him an implacable opponent of the regime in which he lived; if it did not, he was, in the eyes of the militant, a traitor, a man who had sold out, a coward or a ninny. Something of this idea of the nature and function of an intelligentsia was still found in the post World War II France of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.”

The two final essays have a very contemporary relevance. One of these is on ‘General Education’ and its permanent importance. The other is on ‘The Essence of European Romanticism’. From this we learn that “Whatever the differences between the leading romantic thinkers…there runs through their writings a common notion…that truth is not an objective structure, independent of those who seek it, the hidden treasure waiting to be found, but is in all its guises created by the seeker.” What could be more postmodern than that?


Antony Flew is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Reading University.

The Power of Ideas by Isaiah Berlin, a selection of essays edited by Henry Hardy (London: Pimlico 2001) Pb £12:50.

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