[Marxism] Re: South Africa and “Two Concepts of Liberty”

Suresh borhyaenid at yahoo.com
Wed Dec 28 20:26:17 MST 2005

I feel you are both being far too generous with
Berlin. He was a fervent anti-communist, first and
foremost, before he was a liberal. One can frame his
entire corpus, beginning from his biography of Marx,
in terms of political reaction, as surely as Lukacs in
the "Destruction of Reason" located the anti-socialist
axis of Nietzsche’s irrationalism. Marx transcended
and not merely evolved from the tradition of mystical
monism which begins with Spinoza and the crude
mechanistic materialism of the ascending bourgeoisie
found in Hobbes, La Metrie, Bentham, etc., but Berlin,
revealing his early influence in turn-of-century
British idealism, dismisses historical materialism as
merely another monistic creed. Berlin’s notion of the
Ionian Fallacy exposes a fundamental philosophical
pessimism, the pessimism of the late capitalist
bourgeois, which leads finally to the
anti-foundationalism of the post-modernists. The
contemporary neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty,
and incidentally, many of William James’ ideas are
paralleled in Berlin’s, can be said to bridge the gap
between these two trends; Anglo and continental. 

I think it is a mistake to describe Berlin as a kind
of well-intentioned, if complacent Cold War liberal.
Within the spectrum of opinion in the British Labour
Party in his day, he would probably be on the right
wing. He was deeply suspicious of any politics which
smacked of collectivism and utopianism. This comes out
most clearly in his somewhat cynical commitment to
Zionism. The more progressive universalist aspects of
Zionism, and the utopian ideals of Labour Zionism were
anathema to him. When after the end of the Second
World War, the struggle to found the Jewish state took
a turn towards anti-British anti-colonial struggle and
acts of terrorism such as the bombing of the King
David Hotel, Berlin expressed intense disapproval. Of
course, Marxists hold no brief for the Zionist cause,
but it is noteworthy that even for goals he supported,
in this case founding a Jewish homeland, he could not
stomach the violence of the rebel fighting for an
ideal. To this, we can only reply as Trotsky did to

“A means can be justified only by its end. But the end
in its turn needs to be justified, From the Marxist
point of view, which expresses the historical
interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if
it leads to increasing the power of man over nature
and to the abolition of the power of man over man.

“We are to understand then that in achieving this end
anything is permissible?” sarcastically demands the
Philistine, demonstrating that he understood nothing.
That is permissible, we answer, which really leads to
the liberation of mankind. Since this end can be
achieved only through revolution, the liberating
morality of the proletariat of necessity is endowed
with a revolutionary character. It irreconcilably
counteracts not only religious dogma but every kind of
idealistic fetish, these philosophic gendarmes of the
ruling class. It deduces a rule for conduct from the
laws of the development of society, thus primarily
from the class struggle, this law of all laws.”

But, Berlin denied the existence of ultimate ends, or
rather of the possibility of objectively determining
the relative value of multiple moral ends, hence the
pluralist preoccupation. Instead, he posited a type of
ethical minimalism, whereby man positioned between
conflicting truths and interests seeks not to impose a
set of values, but to simply reduce or limit the
possibility of extreme suffering. Inevitably, this is
the perspective of one who defends the status quo –
and this is why he felt such antipathy with the
revolutionary aspects of both Enlightenment and what
he termed “Counter-Enlightenment” thought, even if in
formal terms, he resided within that classical
tradition. His road ultimately leads us close to the
ideology of the post-political (and in that sense,
profoundly conservative) civil society, of the
constellation of NGO’s which promote a bewildering
variety of causes, reducing them all to issues of
minority rights, and whose ultimate function is to
anesthetize the alleged victims and to deny the
possibility of a universal or international struggle.

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