In Today’s Turbulent World We Need Berlin’s Children

David Herman, Standpoint, May 2016.


In May last year Timothy Garton Ash tweeted from China, “Wonderful to see Isaiah Berlin up there among ‘All Sages’ in Wangsheng bookstore here in Beijing.” Garton Ash attached a picture of a wall of framed photographs of leading modern thinkers from a Beijing bookshop with Berlin in the middle. Twelve days later the seventh Isaiah Berlin Memorial Lecture was given in Riga by Berlin’s longtime editor Henry Hardy to a packed hall. Previous speakers in Riga have included Ian Buruma, Michael Ignatieff, John Gray and Anne Applebaum. On October 2, a party was held at Wolfson College, Oxford, to celebrate the publication of the fourth and final volume of Berlin’s Letters.

From Oxford to Beijing and Riga Isaiah Berlin still matters. Nowhere do his ideas matter more than where they are under threat. And as the threats grow, in China and Putin’s Russia, in Ukraine, Eastern Europe and throughout the Muslim world, his influence resonates in recent writings on multiculturalism and on the fragility of liberalism and democracy by a number of leading political essayists and thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic.

This might seem obvious. Berlin was perhaps the greatest liberal political thinker of the postwar period so, of course, his ideas should matter today. But his career and influence were less straightforward than one might think. Berlin was a fascinating barometer of his times. The rise and fall of his reputation tell us a great deal about the cultural and political changes of the past 60 years.