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Anti-cosmopolitan liberalism: Isaiah

Berlin, Jacob Talmon and the dilemma
of national identity
Stanford University, USA
ABSTRACT. The debate between contemporary cosmopolitans and advocates of
nationalism is hardly new. Nevertheless, much of it is based on the erroneous
assumption that cosmopolitanism should be seen as an outgrowth of liberalism, and
that both should be considered as the complete conceptual opposites of nationalism. In
this article I focus on two of the post-war Jewish anglophile intellectuals who took part
in this debate during the Cold War years: the Oxonian liberal philosopher Sir Isaiah
Berlin (1909–97) and the Israeli historian Jacob L. Talmon (1916–80). I use their
examples to argue that the dividing line between cosmopolitans and advocates of
nationalism should not be regarded as signifying the distinction between liberals and
anti-liberals; in fact, this debate also took place within the camp of the liberal thinkers
themselves. I divide my discussion into three parts. Firstly, I examine Berlin’s and
Talmon’s positions within the post-war anti-totalitarian discourse, which came to be
known as ‘liberalism of fear’. Secondly, I show how a sense of Jewish identity,
combined with deep Zionist convictions, induced both thinkers to divorce anti-
nationalist cosmopolitanism – which they regarded as a hollow, illusionary ideal
associated with impossible assimilationist yearnings – from the liberal idea. I conclude
by suggesting that, although neither man had ever developed a systematic theoretical
framework to deal with the complex interactions between ethno-nationalism, liberal
individualism and multiculturalism, Berlin’s vision of pluralism provides the founda-
tions for building such a theory, in which liberalism and nationalism become
complementary rather than conflicting notions.
KEYWORDS: Berlin, Isaiah (1909–97); cosmopolitanism; liberal nationalism;
pluralism; Talmon, Jacob L. (1916–80); totalitarianism
‘Oh, how I love humanity
With love so pure and pringlish
And how I hate the horrid French
Who never will be English!
The International Idea
The largest and the clearest
Is welding all the nations now
Except the one that’s nearest.’ (Chesterton 1951: 15)
Nations and Nationalism 16 (4), 2010, 559–578.
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‘The truest cosmopolitanism goes with the intensest local colour, for otherwise you
contribute nothing to the human treasury and make mankind a featureless monotony.’
(Zangwill 1896: 291)
In October 1960, the Oxonian philosopher and historian of ideas Sir Isaiah
Berlin reported to his close Israeli colleague and friend, the historian Jacob L.
Talmon, that during his enjoyable summer vacation in Portofino, Italy, he
had taken the opportunity to finish reading Elie Kedourie’s recent book on
nationalism (Kedourie 1993). This book, developed from lectures Kedourie
delivered at the London School of Economics in the late 1950s, was an
unparalleled achievement and a landmark in the study of nationalism. It
opened with a historical tour de force that plunged into the late eighteenth-
century origins of nationalist ideologies, continued with a discussion of
nationalism and politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and ended
with a description of the way in which national self-determination had
emerged as the dominant organising principle of international order. Not
entirely dissimilar from Berlin himself, Kedourie was also agitated by the way
that nationalists abused the idea of freedom, making it ‘a particular condition
of the will which [. . .] ensures the lasting fulfilment of the individual and his
bliss’, and thereby turning politics into ‘a method of realising superhuman
vision’ (Kedourie 1993: 79). Yet, something troubled Berlin about Kedourie’s
argument. Writing to Talmon, he said that the book
is really rather touching: he is as you know an upper-class Baghdad Jew, who lost his
status, possessions etc., as the result of the persecution largely induced by Zionism.
Consequently [. . .] he thinks that nationalism is the root of all evil . . . Poor Kedourie, I
rather like him because of the enemies he makes. His life and marvellously one-sided
Panopticonism is a kind of concrete illustration of the thesis that interests present
themselves as ideals and views are directly affected by personal experience . . . It is a
vigorous, naive, sincere book. Very wrong headed, but hopeful against those who think
that ideas can be treated in void . . .(Berlin 1960)
No doubt, as Lloyd Kramer once noted, ‘texts about nationalism have always
drawn their perspectives and passions from the evolving political and cultural
contexts in which their authors lived’ (Kramer 1997: 525). Berlin understood
this when reading Kedourie’s book. He could not avoid finding in it the
unmistakable traces of the author’s own traumatic personal experience. As a
15-year-old schoolboy Kedourie had witnessed the farhud, the notorious June
1941 pogrom against Baghdad’s Jewish community that took place under the
noses of the British authorities, who turned a blind eye to the scenes of murder
and pillage (Kedourie 1998; Yapp 1995). Although he acculturated perfectly
in Britain and never disguised his anglophile disposition, a certain nostalgic
longing to return to the lost multiethnic city of his childhood lurked behind
much of Kedourie’s work. The vivid contrast offered by Kedourie, presenting
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560 Arie M. Dubnov
the Ottoman empire’s ethnic heterogeneity as the mirror opposite of the
irrational nationalism generated by European imperialism, was a touching
eulogy to a delicate human fabric destroyed by the twin evils of imperialism
and nationalism (Kedourie 1970, 1987, 1993). Berlin – a no less successful
acculturated, secular Jew and no sympathiser of empire either – felt much
empathy. Nevertheless, at the same time he was also irritated. Berlin felt that
there was something too harsh about Kedourie’s categorical condemnation
and de-legitimisation of the entire nationalist vocabulary. How could Ke-
dourie be so relentlessly anti-sentimental and lacking in empathy towards the
nationalist, whom he attacked as having invented a dimly atavistic doctrine?
In short, Berlin’s irritation calls for an explanation: why would a champion
of pluralism and toleration in political thought like Berlin find himself so
opposed to Kedourie? Why, despite the fact that he himself defined nation-
alism as an essentially irrational, pathological condition of collective con-
sciousness and resentment (Berlin 1990), was Berlin unwilling to reject the
nationalist idea as a whole? And why did he find it important to report about
Kedourie’s anti-nationalist creed to Jacob Talmon, the renowned author of
The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952), of all people?
The turn taken by the mainstream British study of nationalism during the
previous generation, as it moved away from the history of ideas towards the
social sciences, probably makes it difficult for contemporary observers to
understand what this fuss was all about (Breuilly 2000; King 1999). To be
sure, Berlin’s polemical attitude towards Kedourie was not part of a debate on
the contents of the history of ideas, nor on the adequacy of its methodology.
Nor was it a dispute between a defender of an Oakeshottian-conservative
political orientation of the kind with which Kedourie is generally associated,
and a more social-democratic strand of liberalism, finding greater affinity with
the moderate ideological left. The dispute that surfaced in Berlin’s letter was
inherently connected to the question of cosmopolitanism and universalism
and their relation to nationalism, not less than to the personal life stories of all
the parties involved in the debate. Both Berlin and Talmon firmly rejected
cosmopolitanism. They did not consider it to be a term signifying a certain
lifestyle or fashion, nor did they dismiss the cosmopolitan for being, as Roger
Scruton described, nothing but ‘a kind of parasite, who depends upon the
quotidian lives of others to create the various local flavours and identities in
which he dabbles’ (Scruton 1982: 100). Cosmopolitanism was, to them, a
political stand and a normative vision, grounded in specific historical realities.
And this sort of fiercely anti-nationalist cosmopolitanism was regarded by
both as a reductio ad absurdum of liberal principles and a dangerous illusion.
In their minds, it was inherently associated with an impossible human
yearning to resolve the dialectic tension between the universal and the
particular, the individual and the collective, the local and the global.
Furthermore, both regarded this yearning as the essence of totalitarian
thought. Comparing the work of the historian to that of a psychoanalyst
‘who cures by making his patient aware of his subconscious’, Talmon
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Anti-cosmopolitan liberalism 561
described himself as a ‘social analyst’ whose aim is to identify ‘the human urge
which calls totalitarian democracy into existence, namely the longing for a
final resolution of all contradictions and conflicts into a state of total
harmony’ (Talmon 1952: 244–5). The very same utopian urge was identified
by Talmon in his analysis of Jewish cosmopolitans, whom he considered as
suffering from a modern identity neurosis. Although less harsh in his rhetoric,
Berlin likewise contended that there was no essential difference between the
cosmopolitan utopia and the Orwellian dystopias that he found in dark,
authoritative regimes. ‘Cosmopolitanism,’ Berlin argued, ‘is the shedding of
all that makes one most human, most oneself’ (Berlin 1998a: 255). And what
made one most oneself, he contended, was this ‘need to belong’ to a
community of one’s own, among other things. Both men concluded that
transcending nationalism and entering a post-national order was neither
practical nor desirable.
The aim of this article is to reconstruct historically this liberal anti-
cosmopolitan position. The underlying premise we find in so many contem-
poraneous debates over nationalism and cosmopolitanism, assuming an essen-
tial incompatibility between liberalism and nationalism, comes into question
once the debate over cosmopolitanism is relocated as taking place within the
liberal camp. I will show that the anti-cosmopolitan argument was compatible
with the liberal anti-totalitarian discourse, which provided both the platform on
which Talmon’s and Berlin’s intellectual dialogue was formed and the founda-
tions of Berlin’s famous, but nonetheless very ambiguous, pluralist theory.
The concept of cosmopolitanism enjoys a very long and rich history. Ever
since it was coined by the Stoics to denote the idea that cosmos (‘order’) and
polis (the site of politics) can, at least in principle, be seen as overlapping
(Moles 1996; Schofield 1991), very different (if not even contradictory)
notions and ideas were attached to it. It would be an anachronism to argue
that throughout its long history the underlying a priori working assumption
employed by those making use of the concept was that cosmopolitanism, in
essence, should be regarded as the conceptual antithesis of nationality and
nationalism. Neither would it be accurate to argue that this sort of antithetic
reading was an outcome of the emergence of national ideas or that it sprang
up in reaction to them. Friedrich Meinecke, for example, strongly held that
nation-state and cosmopolitanism (Weltbu¨rgertum) were twin constitutive
ideas rather than opposites, and asserted with much Herderian confidence
that ‘humanity’ goal is not harmony, but the development of particular
powers’ (Meinecke 1970: 34). Even in Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace,
which famously promoted the idea that all rational beings are potential
members of a single moral community, an underlying vision of a federative
league of nations – and not that of an a-national or anti-national global
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562 Arie M. Dubnov
village – was promoted (Kant 2006; Kleingeld 1998; Schlereth 1977). While
casting a very sceptical eye on the nationalist wave that swept the continental
Europe of his time, Lord Acton’s widely quoted essay on nationality did not
encompass at any stage an utter dismissal of the national idea. Although
already available to him, Acton found no special conceptual merit in the term
cosmopolitanism, and instead took nationality’s existence to be a granted
ontological fact, and used it as a theoretical justification for a multinational
empire in which nationality functions as a guarantee of freedom, debunking
any attempt to restore power to one and only one group within civil society
(Acton 1919). It seems, in short, that cosmopolitanism became a handy term
to be employed by critics of nationalism only in recent times.
It remains however unclear at what exact point in time the new dichot-
omous understanding of nationalism and cosmopolitanism as mutually
exclusive concepts emerged. One possible line of explanation, suggested by
Craig Calhoun, considers contemporary cosmopolitanism as a sort of post-
Fukuyamian discourse, developed almost as a direct response to the fall of
communism, which led some enthusiastic optimists at the close of the previous
millennium to believe that a new brave world was taking shape before their
eyes (Calhoun 2007). Others who seek to identify older roots of today’s
quandary may adopt Michael Howard’s and James Sheehan’s theses and
regard contemporaneous cosmopolitanism as a post-1945 variation on a
much older European battle between pacifism and militarism, which re-
emerged with greater vigour after the unprecedented destruction brought
about by two world wars (Howard 2000; Sheehan 2008). Social and economic
historians, less interested in identifying single transformative events and
placing greater emphasis on slow and gradual structural processes of change,
would probably consider cosmopolitanism as a discourse accompanying the
emergence of a global village in which a late or post-industrial economy, new
communication technologies, and accelerated processes of transfer of popula-
tions, ideas or even diseases (alongside many other additional factors) have
erased borders that were previously regarded as uncrossable in a literal as well
as a metaphoric sense (Goddard et al. 2003; Shain 2007). As an intellectual
historian, there appears to me little doubt that the liberal discourse that
emerged immediately after the end of World War II contributed much to our
contemporary quite confused (mis)understandings of cosmopolitanism: Cold
War liberals practically inaugurated a neo-cosmopolitan discourse as they
developed an unprecedented suspicion towards centrally planned statist
bureaucracies and, at the same time, towards volkish body politic rhetoric.
Very much like the discourse of ‘totalitarianism’, this neo-cosmopolitan
discourse was successful precisely because it was able to satisfy simultaneously
the twin needs to reject the desolation and annihilation brought about by
fascism and Nazism and, at the same time, to provide formulas that could be
of practical use in the ongoing ideological struggle against communism.
It was in this context that we find a new libertarian voice emerging from
traumatic memories and fear of totalitarian central planning systems, leading
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Anti-cosmopolitan liberalism 563
Friedrich von Hayek or Wilhelm Ro¨ pke (among others) to associate cosmo-
politanism with untrammelled free trade and global markets (Hayek 1960;
Ro¨ pke 1996). For example, as early as 1944 Ludwig von Mises began to
consider nationalism as a dangerous force that invariably grows to nullify
cosmopolitan ideals of free trade and international peace. He regarded
German Nazism as an extreme example of the common tendency of govern-
ments to intervene in a way that endangers classical liberal ideals (Knight
1947; von Mises 1944). As I argue in the next section, Karl Popper further
developed the cosmopolitan imagination in crystallising the notion of a
supranational, rationalist and liberal open society. What was new about
this type of discourse was not the terminology so much as the new, post-war
trajectory adopted by liberalism as it sought to reconstitute itself after a
deadly chapter in history that was widely regarded as a tragic moment of
liberal collapse.
Ironically, official Soviet propaganda, which by Stalin’s time no longer
paid serious attention to the Marxist-inspired ideal of internationalism or,
even worse, suspected it to be a form of heretical Trotskyism, also contributed
to the turbulent history of the term. Cosmopolitanism was perceived by the
Soviets, to use the words of a 1949 columnist in Pravda, essentially as an
‘ideological weapon of American reaction’ (Yu Pavlov, Mitin and Simonov
1949: 179; see also Vucinich 1984). Studies conducted over the last two
decades repeatedly demonstrate the robust anti-Semitic underpinnings of
much of the Soviet anti-cosmopolitan campaign (Brent and Naumov 2003;
Weiner 1999). It stressed hysterically a presumed ingrained alienation on the
part of Jews toward the socialist body politic, turning cosmopolitanism into a
pejorative term signifying disloyalty and dangerous rootlessness. Like Wes-
tern liberal neo-cosmopolitanism, the Russian anti-cosmopolitan campaign
also had its roots in the wartime years if not earlier; but as the mirror opposite
to the Western discourse, it portrayed Jewish nationalism as part of the
cosmopolitan bourgeois threat. ‘The cosmopolitan thinking of the great part
of Jews with a Jewish origin has been forgotten’, warned Va´ clav Kopecky´ , the
Czechoslovak Minister of Information during the Sla´ nsky´ Trials, in a speech
delivered to the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The Party, Kopecky´
declared, had failed to take seriously enough the struggle against cosmopo-
litanism, precisely because it failed to appreciate Zionism’s role within it,
functioning as ‘an important instrument of American and British imperialism’
that had ‘transformed into a species of Titoism’ (Kaplan 1990: 149). In short,
by the early 1950s it had become clear that, beyond the Iron Curtain,
cosmopolitanism had not only been officially ‘juridicised’ to be used against
antagonists of the regime, but had also been turned into a new anti-Semitic
prejudice, seen as an inherent part of an imagined collective, non-assimilatory
Jewish mentality.
One does not need to read between the lines to appreciate how Jacob
Talmon’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, was written
under the strong influence of Cold-War realities. According to Talmon’s
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564 Arie M. Dubnov
thesis, Jacobin and Bolshevik oppression did not simply resemble each other,
but were in fact causally related. The philosophical foundations of totalitar-
ianism had been laid by Rousseau, he asserted, for it was he who had first
legitimated persecution, forced subjection, re-education and ‘terrorist dicta-
torship in the name of freedom’ (Talmon 1975: 122).
Therefore, the term
‘totalitarian democracy’ served not only to explain the novelty of the French
Revolution, but also to offer a deeper explanation of the dark roots from
which the twentieth century’s ideological clash had evolved. This was a top-
down model of political control and coercion, in which the masses were
dominated totally by an elite that could present itself as fulfilling the will of
the masses. In the eyes of John Dunn, one of Talmon’s critics, this was an
invented narrative, suggesting nothing but an ‘imaginative prehistory of
communist regimes’ (Dunn 1984: 40). Other commentators, more sympathetic
towards Talmon’s project, regarded this as a merit, praising the young
historian for demonstrating an unequivocal ‘sensitivity to the present that
informs [the] account of the past’ (Billington 1984: 56).
From the late 1940s onwards, Isaiah Berlin presented a similar thesis to
that of Talmon’s in his numerous lectures and essays. Although, as a young
Oxford don, Berlin was associated with the Pink Lunch Club (a gathering of
young socialist and ‘Lib-Lab’ intellectuals orchestrated by G. D. H. Cole)
during the 1930s, after World War II he became a fierce and uncompromising
anti-communist (Dodds 1977; Harrison 1991; Ignatieff 1998; Ayer 1992).
Berlin’s 1945–6 visit to Russia, during which he met with the persecuted poet
Anna Akhmatova, was undoubtedly one of the factors that induced him to
adopt an uncompromising anti-communist stand (Dalos and Dunai 1998;
Ignatieff 1998). To this one may add Berlin’s explicit admiration of Winston
Churchill, whom he considered after the war to be the most admirable British
prime minister in history (Berlin 1998b). Indeed, there is a deep sense in which
the political philosophy that Berlin developed in the post-war years corre-
sponds with Churchill’s dramatic depiction of the globe as divided by an Iron
Curtain. Even ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, Berlin’s celebrated inaugural
lecture delivered in 1958 as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Thought
– in which he sought to differentiate between the ‘correct’ (i.e. liberal)
understanding of the words ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ and the way in which they
were, in his opinion, misunderstood, misused and eventually abused by the
Nazi and Soviet regimes – can be and was read at the time as a Cold War
liberal manifesto (Berlin 1969). In the eyes of Leo Strauss, for instance,
Berlin’s comprehensive formula is not of analytical so much as of political use:
he believed that the lecture failed to offer much beyond a ‘manifesto designed
to rally all anti-communists’ (Strauss 1989: 15–16). The strength of Berlin’s
philosophical argument owed much to the fact that it was backed by historical
investigation. And indeed, having producing a narrative strikingly similar to
that of Talmon, Berlin argued as early as 1949 that ‘the root of both
democracy and communism [is to be found] in eighteenth-century rationalism’
and that ‘Rousseau formulates the basic proposition of Communism, Fascism
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Anti-cosmopolitan liberalism 565
and all other totalitarian orders’ (Berlin 1949). Berlin contributed numerous
pieces to journals such as Foreign Affairs (published by the Council on
Foreign Relations, which in those years adopted George Kennan’s political
position) and Encounter (a CIA-funded magazine that sought to provide all
anti-communist scholars with a joint platform), in which he defended Western
liberalism and decried the Soviet Union as ‘a vast prison’ characterised by ‘the
suppression of original thought, fears, mutual suspicions and the haunting
sense of political insecurity’ (Berlin 1947: 543, 545). The so-called new Soviet
man was, he insisted, nothing but ‘the result of so many years of Stalinist
conditioning’ governed by ‘bullying and half-cynical semi-Marxist philistines’
(Berlin 2004: 156, 165). Those philistines, he maintained, used and abused the
noble idea of liberty by offering a twisted positive version of it, speaking of
‘freedom to’ rather than ‘freedom from’, believing firmly in ‘one prescribed
form of life – which the adherence of the ‘negative’ notions represent as being,
at times, no better than a specious disguise for brutal tyranny’ (Berlin 1969: 131).
To be sure, there is no single coherent theoretical statement of anything
called Cold War liberalism. This should be regarded primarily as an umbrella
concept or, as Jan-Werner Mu¨ ller noted correctly, as a term signifying a
‘particular sensibility’ (Mu¨ ller 2008). We find this sort of sensibility in the
work of thinkers who agreed on a very loose set of presuppositions that are
best summed up by the well-known expression coined by Judith Shklar: the
‘liberalism of fear’. Liberalism of fear is concerned primarily with preventing
political violence, cruelty and abuse of power. Its basic premise, she argued, is
‘that some agents of government will behave lawlessly and brutally in small or
big ways most of the time unless they are prevented from doing so’ (Shklar
1998a: 10). This is essentially a ‘negative’ and highly pessimistic liberalism.
is concerned first and foremost with avoiding the worst, rather than achieving
the best, and seeks the best possible means of minimising conflicts that seem
almost inevitable. Alluding to Hobbes, Shklar described her position as
resting on a summum malum (‘the supreme evil’) argument, and she hailed
the anglophone philosophers for replacing utopianism with scepticism as a
method of thinking about political philosophy (Shklar 1998b). Finally, she
never denied that her view was born out of cruelty and war, and was linked to
her personal experience as a Jew living in the twentieth century (Shklar 1996).
Building on Mu¨ ller’s suggestion, we may construct our description of Cold
War liberalism using Shklar’s framework. Indeed, liberal Cold War warriors
combined an understanding of two kinds of fear: firstly the fear of utopia, fear
‘of ambitious programmes advanced by those who felt absolutely certain in
their convictions and sure about their political prescriptions’ (Mu¨ ller 2008:
48); and secondly the fear of fear itself, namely the understanding that
intimidation and terrorisation of citizens – i.e. the creation of a situation in
which the masses submit themselves to the yoke of political authority out of
panic at the possibility of being sent to a gulag, a concentration camp or such
like Kafkaesque penal colony – is an extremely potent and dangerous
motivating force that should be morally condemned. These ‘liberals of fear’
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566 Arie M. Dubnov
contended that in modern politics ‘many political evils and pathologies
ultimately originated in fear itself’ (Shklar 1998a: 11).
None manifest the particular sensibility that characterises the liberalism of
fear better than Talmon and Berlin. In fact, they provided the historical and
philosophical sides (respectively) of the same coin: while Talmon presented in
his book a historical description of the abuse of the idea of freedom and
democracy, Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ aimed primarily to identify
philosophically and describe the conceptual mutation of the term. Together,
they feared Soviet communism precisely because it was seen as an ambitious
utopian programme whose planners were willing to justify all evil in the name
of a future desired end. The alternative they offered was clearly liberal: if
citizens and rulers alike would understand liberty in negative terms – that is,
as the absence of constraints on the individual (‘freedom from’) – they would
not fall into totalitarianism, for the totalitarian understood liberty in positive
terms as the ability to pursue and achieve desired goals, self-rule and self-
realisation (‘freedom to’). The two parallel distinctions that Talmon and
Berlin offered – liberal vs. totalitarian democracy and negative vs. positive
freedom – were designed not only to explain the past but also to describe the
Therefore, the Cold War’s ‘liberalism of fear’, and especially its strict anti-
totalitarian discourse, provided the intellectual foundation upon which
Talmon’s and Berlin’s intellectual dialogue was originally based. But the
question remains: why were the two so eager to defend nationality rather than
rejecting it as a dangerous, metaphysical and ‘positive’ abuse of the ideas of
freedom and democracy? In seeking an answer to these questions, I contend,
we must take into consideration the neo-cosmopolitan discourse – especially
the sort developed by other Cold War liberals, who were often Berlin’s and
Talmon’s direct interlocutors.
The majority of scholarly discussions aimed at explaining and formulating the
category of Cold War liberalism tend not to address the question of the
response of Cold War Jewish intellectuals to Zionism, or alternatively to
assume that sooner or later all major post-war Jewish intellectuals absorbed
the politics of exile, becoming fierce critics of all forms of nationalism. A more
careful and nuanced approach is undoubtedly required. In fact, the very thin
common thread tying Cold War liberals together tears when it comes to the
question of Jewish nationalism. Put otherwise: what we find among Cold War
liberals is a cacophony rather than a symphony, or at least an internal division
separating vocal liberal cosmopolitans, who largely set the tone in the debates
of organisations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, from liberals
who were unwilling to reject the national idea tout court. These were, to be
sure, divisions within the liberal and anti-totalitarian camp.
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Anti-cosmopolitan liberalism 567
Cosmopolitan Cold War liberalism did not express itself only in a Hayek-
ish libertarian call for an uncoerced free-market economy. Karl Popper’s
understanding of the division between open and closed societies is probably
the best known formula of Cold War cosmopolitanism. Popper was a fierce
critic of the national idea: he demanded that ideas such as self-recognition or
self-determination be removed from the lexicon of political and international
planners and looked for inspiration to Kant, whose cosmopolitanism he
admired and sought to transplant to post-1945 Europe (Popper 1968).
Zionism, he argued, was a petrified form of Jewish racialism that was both
‘stupid’ and ‘wrong’ (Popper 1992: 120). This was not an expression of Jewish
self-hatred but part of a deep cosmopolitan conviction. As Hacohen says, to
Popper ‘[n]ational identities were false, reactionary and utopian. Individual,
imperial and cosmopolitan identities were true, progressive and possible’
(Hacohen 2001: 266). National sentiments were no different from primitive
feelings of clannish pride, and were associated with the dogmatic, irrational
thinking of closed societies.
Not all Cold War liberals accepted this Popperian vision. Even Michael
Polanyi, who very much like Popper was a quintessential Austro-Hungarian
Bildungsbu¨rger and admirer of the natural sciences and the Enlightenment,
did not go as far as Popper, and was not only willing to associate himself with
Zionism at a certain stage of his life but also wrote an important essay on the
subject. In the post-war years, having distanced himself from the Zionist
movement, Polanyi was still unwilling to dismiss the entire discourse and
sentiment of nationalists as primitive, but simply declared that although
‘national life is a deep source of strength [. . .] it is not all; there is plenty
outside it’ (Knepper 2005; Polanyi 1943: 12). Typologically speaking, then, we
must distinguish cosmopolitan liberals from non- or anti-cosmopolitan ones.
Historically speaking, this was not an abstract question. The foundation of
the state of Israel in May 1948, which coincided with the onset of the Cold
War and symbolised, together with the independence of India, the complete
and final breakdown of the British empire, rendered the questions of
nationalism and cosmopolitanism almost existential ones for so many
participants in this debate. The issue was not only whether the new country
would fall under the Western or Eastern sphere of influence, but also how
Jews should define themselves collectively in this new world. In other words,
the existence of a Jewish nation-state was one of the prime triggers of the
cosmopolitan dilemma among the liberals of fear, and this was for them a
time of self-questioning and not only of abstract theorising.
It was in this context that Talmon and Berlin, at the zenith of their
intellectual careers and at the height of the Cold War, wrote their essays in
defense of Zionism. As I have shown elsewhere, the similarity between the
ideas of the two men is not coincidental, but bears evidence of extensive
collaboration and a prolonged intellectual dialogue between the two (Dubnov
2008). Their rejection of cosmopolitanism found its way into their historical
writings. In these works, they examined Jewish dissident figures such as Rosa
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568 Arie M. Dubnov
Luxemburg, Karl Marx and Moses Hess. Not afraid to employ psychological
terminology, Talmon considered Rosa Luxemburg to be the best example of
the essentially pathological condition of the ‘assimilated’ Jew. The defining
feature of this neurosis, Talmon asserted, was that the Jew dreams that
emancipation would give rise to a cosmopolitan society in which he would no
longer be treated as a guest or an outsider. This aspiration was then translated
into the internationalist cravings of Jews, who became enchanted by revolu-
tionary illusions. According to this thesis, Luxemburg suffered from a painful
self-deception that was itself a product of distress and dangerous repression.
Most importantly, by arguing that Luxemburg’s contempt towards national-
ism was one of the symptoms of her disease, Talmon was able to connect his
anti-communist liberalism with his Zionist historiographical reading. Cosmo-
politanism appeared to him as a modern neurosis, and anti-nationalism a
product of ‘a fundamental uncertainty’ on the part of the Jew about his
identity, a distressing ‘result of a cosmopolitan rootlessness, which came from
not being instinctively anchored to a stable tradition and fixed mode of life’
(Talmon 1981: 90 [my emphasis]).
Berlin’s essay on Moses Hess exemplifies a similar move aimed at ‘inter-
nationally minded’ Jews who rationalise their own anomalous situation
instead of admitting to themselves that they belong to an ethno-national
minority group. Berlin was fascinated by the miraculous transformation of
the communist rabbi who became disillusioned with the Marxist ideals of his
youth. Hess was read as a sober thinker resisting the temptation of the Jew, a
member of a persecuted minority who transcended his misfortune by speaking
more enthusiastically than others about humanity with a capital H, imagining
a utopian world in which his hardship would miraculously fade away (Berlin
Hints of Berlin’s rejection of communism as a form of artificial
cosmopolitanism can be identified in his first book, which depicted Karl Marx
as a dislocated person, frustrated by his incapacity to assimilate into
bourgeois society, who produced his communist utopia partly as a result of
this unfulfilled craving for a sense of belonging (Berlin 1939). In ‘Jewish
Slavery and Emancipation’ (1952), probably Berlin’s boldest pro-Zionist
manifesto, he further developed his analysis of Jewish assimilationist yearn-
ings. Arguing against this ‘assimilationism’, Berlin presented Judaism in
ethno-national terms, as an immanent and inescapable aspect of one’s identity
(Berlin 2001). The essay on Hess, written around 1957, constitutes a closure in
this sense. One detects the admiration Berlin felt towards the ‘Red Rabbi’. In
Berlin’s account of Hess’s story, Marx was once again cast in the role of
villain, who employed false cosmopolitanism as a mask to cover the Marxists’
crude anti-Semitic prejudices. The young Hess, like Marx, believed that the
‘real emancipation [of Jews] would occur only when all hatred and contempt
for them on the part of others disappeared. In short, he repeated the noble
common places that have formed the staple doctrine of liberal assimilia-
tionists everywhere and at all times’ (Berlin 2001: 226). But the mature Hess,
Berlin asserted, understood to what degree this notion was erroneous and
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Anti-cosmopolitan liberalism 569
superstitious. Berlin hailed Hess’s conversion to Jewish nationalism, not yet
termed Zionism at that time. Unlike Marx, Berlin argued, Hess ‘did not suffer
from a self-hatred that made him wish to commit acts of violence against his
nature. He did not try to cut the traces of his origins out of himself because he
did not feel it as a malignant growth that was suffocating him and of which he
was ashamed’ (Berlin 1980c: 225). Berlin used Hess to castigate the pre-
tentious liberal idea that conditioned the emancipation of Jews by treating
their national collectiveness as a primitive, strange quality, of which they
should rid themselves through education:
Hess did not accept the Marxist doctrine of the unreality of nationalism as a basic factor
in history. He condemned cosmopolitanism as the deliberated and unnatural suppres-
sion of real historical differences which enrich mankind [. . .] [H]e sharply rejected the
Hegelian distinction between ‘historic’ nations and those unfortunate ‘submerged’
nationalities, which the more bellicose nations, chosen to ‘play a historic role’ in virtue
of their superiority, had a ‘historic’ right to absorb and dominate.(Berlin 1980c: 230)
More than a decade later, in ‘Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx, and the Search
for Identity’ (Berlin 1980a), Berlin once again returned to the same ideas,
producing another bold apology of Zionism. He felt no compunction in
employing the highly pejorative notion of juedischer Selbsthass (Jewish self-
hatred) against Marx, this time compared to Disraeli, the Jew who was
presumably the greatest champion of empire. Political struggles and ideology
were read in this essay through a new prism – that of identity politics –
provided by the 1960s. But the core of the argument remained the same: ‘The
baptised Jewish intellectual, still regarded as racially a Jew by his fellows,
could not hope to be politically effective so long as nationalism remained a
problem for him. It had somehow to be eliminated as an issue.’ This, Berlin
continues, explains why ‘Marx identified himself with a social force, the great
international class of the disinherited workers, in whose name he could
thunder his anathemas’ (Berlin 1980a: 280–1). Put otherwise: Marx idealised
the highly abstract category of the proletariat, but could never really be part
of this class because he lacked any real roots and a sense of belonging.
It is clear, then, that both Talmon’s and Berlin’s anti-communist outlook
was linked to their rejection of ‘assimilationism’, as they mobilised to defend
both Jewish ethno-nationalism and anti-cosmopolitanism alike. The psycho-
logical desire to solve identity dilemmas and overcome marginality by
dissolving into semi-abstract and universalistic entities endowed this ‘assim-
ilationism’ with its fundamental nature. This is where liberal cosmopolitanism
and Marxist internationalism found common ground. Browsing carefully
through Berlin’s other writings, one finds him defending the theory that Jews
were drawn towards liberalism by desires similar to those that motivated their
brethren who found communist revolution so attractive. Both groups derived
their beliefs from false Enlightenment assumptions regarding the nature of
critical rationalism and the way in which it presumably requires people to
overcome their irrational particularity and understanding of distinct group
identity. This was an accusation that offended classic liberals. It recognised an
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570 Arie M. Dubnov
‘assimilationist drive’ within liberalism – yet another emancipation philoso-
phy that linked liberty with the idea of ‘enlightening’ people away from their
primordial ethno-nationality. Popper was probably most displeased to find
that his progressive liberal cosmopolitanism, when viewed from this perspec-
tive, was not the diametric opposite of communist utopianism but merely the
other side of the same internationalist coin. Talmon and Berlin reconstituted
their identity as Jews and as liberals as the mirror image of Luxemburg and
Marx, seeking to retain their particularity by returning to the nineteenth-
century liberal idea of a general hu¨manitat that is subdivided into ethno-
national subgroups. Clearly, this was an attempt to rehabilitate the national
position. Yet it should not be mistakenly confused with the idea of defending
the nation-state theory. The quintessential argument of this anti-cosmopolitan
liberalism was the call to overcome an illusion of civilising people by inducing
them to abandon their sense of ethno-national belonging. Cosmopolitan
liberalism could not regard ethno-national sentiments as anything but symp-
toms of atavistic tribalism. But the very idea that liberalism requires ethno-
national groups to dissolve peacefully into their environment was precisely what
both thinkers regarded as repellently wrong about cosmopolitan liberalism.
Much of Berlin’s and Talmon’s argumentation is based on classic Zionist
arguments, used throughout the history of the nationalist movement against
its Jewish foes, who were frequently accused of absorbing an ‘assimilationist
mentality’ typical of emancipated Jews. What was originally new about their
move is the conscious attempt to incorporate this sort of argumentation
within a liberal framework rather than turning it into an anti-liberal argu-
ment. Their liberalism of fear merged with their fierce Zionist anti-cosmopo-
litanism, rather than creating false either/or alternatives. The result was not
only a different historical narrative depicting the origins of the twentieth
century’s catastrophes, but also a new understanding of a liberalism that is
friendly toward and compatible with moderate forms of nationalism. Post-
war liberalism could not allow itself to make the mistake of offering a haughty
philosophy that failed to satisfy emotional needs for cementing social bonds in
the name of abstract universalism.
Neither Berlin nor Talmon systematically developed a theory of liberal
nationalism. Nevertheless, we can find in Berlin’s writings on pluralism some
elements that may provide the cornerstones for the construction of a theory
by those wishing to find a middle way between nationalism and cosmopoli-
tanism. Such a theory requires a far lengthier elaboration than the one I am
able to present here. I shall now devote my brief conclusion to sketching the
contours of Berlin’s outlook on the subject.
The debate between Cold War liberals regarding cosmopolitanism, Zionism
and nationalism informed Berlin’s later writings. Like the Zionist thinkers he
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Anti-cosmopolitan liberalism 571
wrote about, Berlin also contended that self-elimination because of an
excessive hunger to assimilate could result in denial of one’s identity. He
considered this to be not only psychologically harmful, but also hopeless.
Towards the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, as de´tente replaced the Iron
Curtain as the popular emblem of the day, Berlin began to place a greater
emphasis in his writings on the importance of individuals’ membership in
larger collectives, including nations. This shift in emphasis, I would argue,
testifies to the fact that Berlin, the arch-Cold War warrior, was far more
attentive than it may seem to the new political language that emerged from the
generation of 1968 and to the post-colonial atmosphere in the international
realm. When generalised, this psychological insight – that no man is an island
– became part of what we may describe, following Richard Wollheim, as
Berlin’s ‘philosophical anthropology’ (Wollheim 1991: 64).
On the whole, I consider Berlin’s philosophical anthropology to be based
on two central theorems. While these may seem at first glance contradictory,
they are, in fact, complementary. The first theorem contends that the
incredibly colourful diversity that one finds when studying human societies
is, in principle, an irreducible diversity. The plurality of modes of behaviour,
customs, languages and so forth is discovered empirically, Berlin believed, and
is therefore a basic, indisputable fact. Nationalism was attractive as a sort of
comparative anthropology, showing how different from each other human
groups can be. To this phenomenological layer Berlin added an epistemolo-
gical and normative claim, according to which this pluralism could not and
should not be put into rationalised iron cages and formulised in a way that
would make it appear secondary or epiphenomenal to a universal or essential
common human nature. Nevertheless, the second theorem asserts that
although this diversity exists, we may yet speak intelligibly of a common
human nature in a narrower sense, precisely because the same empirical
observations prove to us that all humans share several common features (e.g.
cognitive-psychological features such as the ability to empathically under-
stand a different culture or a different age), as well as common needs. To be
sure, what Berlin came to defend is not a multi-cultural right to cultural
distinctiveness. He was thinking, in classic liberal manner, in strictly indivi-
dualistic terms. The individual’s need to rise above loneliness, to associate
himself voluntarily with a collective that renders him a member in what Yael
Tamir, Berlin’s former disciple, described as ‘a meaning-giving group’ (Tamir
1998: 280) is a basic, common and in this sense universal human need. Berlin
preferred to simply call it ‘the need to belong’ (Berlin 1980b: 338):
The need to belong to an easily identifiable group had been regarded, at any rate since
Aristotle, as a natural requirement on the part of human beings: families, clans, tribes,
estates, social orders, classes, religious organisations, political parties, and finally
nations and states, were historical forms of the fulfilment of this basic human need.
In other words, identity matters: people long for a feeling of rootedness, for
having roots in some culture, soil or collective. Berlin believed that moral and
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572 Arie M. Dubnov
political philosophers tend to forget this basic commonsensical fact. The need
for identity is universal, but each individual longs to have a particular
identity, and not to merge with an abstract, shapeless whole. The historical
essays that Berlin dedicated to thinkers such as Vico and Herder promoted the
view that he formulated in a more abstract and formal style in his philoso-
phical essays, and as years passed it became clear that the ‘need to belong’ had
become no less significant to Berlin than the need of any individual for a
certain minimum liberty. Rising above his own narrow and highly individua-
listic conception of negative liberty, the later Berlin described humans as
essentially paradoxical creatures, who in order to remain individuals need an
affirmation of their uniqueness, and at the very same time derive the meaning
of their own identity from their belonging to a larger collective. Time and
again Berlin found himself forced to explain to students and critics, who were
accustomed to reading his work only through the prism of ‘Two Concepts of
Liberty’, that the need to define one’s identity by belonging to a community
was, in his view, constitutive of the way individuals define themselves, and was
part of a shared human nature. Expressions such as ‘shared core of quasi-
universal values’ or, in other cases, a more Gadamerian metaphor of a
common ‘human horizon’ suddenly appeared in his writings (Berlin 1990: 11,
80; Berlin 1997: 30).
Berlin’s meticulous editor, Henry Hardy, argued that
the addition of these metaphors resulted, paradoxically, in adding more
ambiguity to Berlin’s discussion (Crowder and Hardy 2007; Hardy 2007). This
ambiguity afflicts both Berlin’s own writing and that of some of his major
commentators and interpreters, who make a great effort to offer a coherent
Berlinian legacy. However, there were cases in which Berlin simply offered a
list of basic human needs, in which this particular need – ‘the need to belong’ –
was included:
I think that it is true to say that there are certain basic needs, for example – for food,
shelter, security and, if we accept Herder, for belonging to a group of one’s own –
which anyone qualifying for the description of human being must be held to possess.
These are only the most basic properties; one might be able to add the need for a
certain minimum of liberty, for the opportunity to pursue happiness or the realisation
of one’s potentialities for self-expression, for creation (however elementary), for love,
for worship (as religious thinkers have maintained), for communication, and for some
means of conceiving and describing themselves, perhaps in highly symbolic and
mythological forms, their own relationship to the environment – natural and human
– in which they live.(Polanowska-Sygulska 2006: 41)
Alluding to the famous psychological theory of Abraham Maslow (1954), we
can term this Berlinian conviction – that the need to belong is an essential,
universal good in all human beings – using the label ‘Berlin’s hierarchy of
needs’. What I earlier identified as Berlin’s philosophical anthropology, as
well as the conviction that a hierarchy of needs exists universally, was
intrinsically connected to the way Berlin understood value pluralism. Value
pluralism is, first and foremost, a moral theory that assumes that, given the
plurality of human values and ends, there may be cases in which some of these
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Anti-cosmopolitan liberalism 573
values might contradict one another, and that some (but certainly not all)
conflicts between values can never be resolved. A classic example used
frequently by Berlin and his commentators is the conflict between liberty
and equality. Like Talmon, Berlin believed that history had proved beyond
doubt that the attempt to resolve this conflict had turned too quickly into an
authoritarian nightmare. Berlin’s strong conviction that liberal regimes
should not resolve conflicts of this type was connected inherently to his
anti-totalitarian beliefs.
Berlin was regarded as having produced an impossible conceptual Gordian
knot when he defended these quasi-communitarian ideas while, at the same
time, defending negative liberty. But it is relatively easy to understand why he
considered himself part of the liberal family: he never abandoned his
commitment to a conception of freedom and of respect for the capacities
and the agency of individuals, and it was individuals – not cultures, nations,
communities and certainly not nation-states – whom he always considered to
be the building blocks of any political theory. He regarded himself as a liberal
pluralist, not an advocate of relativism or multiculturalism. When accused by
Leo Strauss, Arnaldo Momigliano and others of yielding to such a position,
Berlin made a clear distinction between pluralism and relativism, arguing that
the two were not only distinct, but even contradictory to each other (Strauss
1989; Momigliano 1976).
For relativists, cultures are morally incommensur-
able, each having its own unique and incomparable ethical perspective.
However, Berlin described values, and not cultures, as incommensurable. In
Berlin’s view, cultures cannot be wholly incommensurable because part of
what makes us human (q.v. Berlin’s ‘philosophical anthropology’) is our
capacity for inter-cultural understanding and the fact that we have a very
similar hierarchy of needs. A common human horizon of moral experience
unites even members of different cultures, a fact denied by extreme multi-
culturalists and relativists. Members of different cultures and nations pursue
many different goods, but these are often divergent interpretations of
fundamental values that are common to all human societies. The very fact
that we are able to understand a remote society – whether as historians or as
anthropologists – supports this view.
Using the label ‘anti-cosmopolitan liberal’ does not, perhaps, resolve all the
theoretical problems I have described, but it surely adds to our understanding
of the connection between Berlin’s liberalism and pluralism. Berlin’s pluralism
helped him to strike a fine balance between the universalist assumptions that
rational cosmopolitans hold dear and the almost nihilist a-moralism em-
bedded in extreme versions of cultural relativism and multiculturalism. The
idea of the ‘nation’ played a central role in the background of this theoretical
construction. As a sceptic liberal of fear, Berlin always feared those who
would reify this entity and turn the individual into an insignificant component
within a much greater collective whole. Nevertheless, unlike the cosmopolitan,
he was unwilling to render nationality irrelevant and epiphenomenal. The
illusion lay not in the feeling of belonging to a nation, he believed, but in the
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574 Arie M. Dubnov
yearning to transcend it and become a ‘citizen of the world’, a political realm
that is an entirely virtual entity and that requires tormenting self-denial from
the individual.
Therefore, Berlin’s pluralism points to the cultural diversity that characterises
the global age without falling into multiculturalism. The chief value to
individuals of membership in larger collectives is that they provide a context
within which the individuals can make sense of their life choices. The commu-
nity, the culture and the nation remain valuable in this framework; neither
epiphenomenal nor reified. They are not considered valuable as an end in
themselves but only instrumentally, as a means of facilitating individual choice.
A somewhat similar view has been offered by Julia Kristeva: fiercely local
nationalism and free-floating cosmopolitanism, Kristeva argues, offer us
nothing beyond pernicious dualism. This dualism can only be transcended by
facing up to our origins, thinking our way through them and then positioning
ourselves at the crossing of boundaries (Kristeva 1993). On this subject, Kristeva
may be coupled with Berlin. This is the essence of anti-cosmopolitan liberalism.
1 I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers of Nations and Nationalism for their scrutiny
of and suggestions on the previous version of this article. I am also grateful to Hedva Ben-Israel,
Malachi H. Hacohen, Adi Gordon and Alexander Joffe for some stimulating conversations on the
issues raised in this article.
2 The term ‘Panopticonism’ in Berlin’s letter alludes to Jeremy Bentham’s idea of Panopticon, a
perfect architectural form for a prison that would allow the guards to observe (-opticon) all (pan-)
prisoners, without the prisoners being able to tell whether they were being watched.
3 Compare with Talmon’s reading of Rousseau in his Origins of Totalitarian Democracy,
especially pp. 46–8, 286, 390–1 and 405.
4 Also associated with this grouping, besides Cole, Berlin, Dodds and Ayer, were John L.
Austin, Geoffrey F. Hudson, Alfred L. Rowse, Christopher Hill, Richard Crossman, James E.
Meade and Roy F. Harrod.
5 I put ‘negative’ in quotation marks to distinguish it from Berlin’s ‘negative freedom’. Shklar
finds a resemblance between her liberalism and Berlin’s formulation, arguing that the ‘very clear
demarcation of negative liberty is the best means of avoiding the slippery slope that can lead us to
its threatening opposite’, but adds that ‘[i]t is not a sufficient condition, but it is a necessary
prerequisite’ and that the liberalism of fear ‘does not rest on a theory of moral pluralism’ (Shklar
1998a: 10–11).
6 ‘Systematic fear’ and ‘institutionalised cruelty’ were the terms used by Shklar to describe this
sort of fear.
7 Popper summarised his Kantian convictions when asked to prepare a lecture for a radio
broadcast (which was subsequently published) in honour of the 150th anniversary of Kant’s death
in 1954.
8 For a historiographical overview of the (Zionist and non-Zionist) assessments on Moses Hess,
including that of Berlin, see Vago (2007).
9 We must use this term cautiously: ‘A belief in common nature,’ Wollheim writes, ‘has this
character: it is at once part of the science of man and part of the philosophy of mind. The inquiry
to which it belongs used to be called ‘‘philosophical anthropology’’, and that is a revealingly
hybrid term’ (Wollheim 1991: 64).
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Anti-cosmopolitan liberalism 575
10 Gadamer used the metaphor ‘fusion of horizons’ (Horizontverschmelzung) in a very different
sense, to explain his hermeneutical system (Gadamer 1989).
11 For the Berlinian distinction between pluralism and relativism, see Berlin (1955).
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