Isaac Deutscher 1955

Determinists All

Source: Observer, 16 January 1955. A review of Isaiah Berlin, Historical Inevitability (Oxford University Press, 1954). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

With puckish humour, Mr Isaiah Berlin chose the inauguration of the Auguste Comte Memorial Trust Lectures at the London School of Economics as the occasion for delivering this brilliant, irresistibly eloquent tirade against all those philosophers, historians, political theorists and writers who, in one form or another, accept the notion of ‘historic inevitability’. This is, of course, one of the classical and perennial topics of debate; but rarely have the doctrines of determinism and their expounders been exposed to so tempestuous and rapid and roaring a verbal hurricane fire as that which Mr Berlin has directed against them from all his academic guns.

It is difficult not to sympathise with Mr Berlin when he turns his philosophical invective against the hosts of metaphysicians and mystics who have attempted to press all human history and experience into all sorts of elaborate and unreal ‘systems’, ‘categories’ and generalisations, although one may feel that more could be said for some of the great metaphysicians of the past than Mr Berlin seems to allow. Mr Berlin is also on strong ground when he protests against the mechanical application to human society of the methods of inquiry and classification which are proper to the study of nature: Auguste Comte’s theory offers indeed the textbook illustration of that error. And Mr Berlin is fully justified in denouncing those who use the notion of historical inevitability as a ‘moral alibi’ enabling them to shift ‘the weight of responsibility for all human action’ on to ‘the broad backs of these vast impersonal forces – institutions or historic trends – better made to bear such burdens than a feeble-thinking reed-like man...’. He quotes a very apt saying by Mr Justice Brandeis that ‘the irresistible is often only that which is not resisted’.

As Mr Berlin directs much of his argument against Marxist determinism let me also add that it is true that among those who have professed Marxism some, for instance the old German Social Democrats, have often used the idea of historic inevitability as an excuse for their own moral quietism and political futility.

* * *

But here my agreement with Mr Berlin ends. He does not seem to make the necessary distinction between determinism and fatalism. It is patently incorrect to say that determinism is, as a rule, conducive to quietism or moral surrender to things as they are. Is present-day Communism, in its crude way the chief expounder of determinism, so quietist and passive? The abuse of determinism as a ‘moral alibi’ is no argument against the theory of determinism itself, with which Mr Berlin fails to come to grips. The chief weakness of his tirade is that it attempts too much and achieves too little. Mr Berlin protests on almost every page against the generalisations and abstractions of others, but he himself sins in this respect to quite an extraordinary extent. He lumps together scores of philosophical ideas and systems, determines in a few sentences of sweeping generalisation what is their ‘common denominator’, and then roundly condemns them all. He throws the heads of nearly all the great philosophers and historians of antiquity and modern times into one vast bag, heaping the same accusation on all of them, and then he hurls them down with one magnificent gesture from the Tarpeian rock. Only two philosophers, I fear, survive the great execution: Mr Karl Popper and Mr Isaiah Berlin.

* * *

What is one to make, for instance, of the following typical statements?

To understand all is to see that nothing could be otherwise than as it is; that all blame, indignation, protest is merely complaint about what seems discordant... This is the sermon preached to us by thinkers of very different outlooks, by Spinoza and Godwin, by Tolstoy and Comte, by mystics and rationalists, theologians and scientific materialists, metaphysicians and dogmatic empiricists, American sociologists and Russian Marxists, and German historicists alike.

From Plato to Lucretius, from the Gnostics to Leibniz, from Thomas Aquinas to Lenin and Freud, the battle-cry has been essentially the same... that reality is wholly knowable, and that knowledge and only knowledge liberates, and absolute knowledge liberates absolutely, that is common to all these doctrines which are so large a part of Western civilisation. To explain is to understand and to understand is to justify. The notion of individual responsibility is a delusion.

A review in a Sunday paper is not the place for the discussion of the fundamentals of philosophy and history. But one would like to interrupt for a moment the torrential flow of Mr Berlin’s philosophical monologue and remark that it is hardly correct to condemn Spinoza, the expounder of Ethics, or Tolstoy, the moralist, for denial of ‘individual responsibility’, despite the strong streak of fatalism in their thought, that it is not quite accurate to ascribe to Thomas Aquinas that man’s knowledge of God the Infinite can be absolute, that Freud, looking into the dark depths of man’s subconsciousness, can certainly not be described as an expounder of absolute knowledge, and that nobody was as emphatic in his insistence on the relativity of knowledge as Lenin.

Nor is it true that for Lenin and Marx ‘to understand meant to justify’. It would be much nearer the truth to say that for both of them to understand the society of their day meant to repudiate it and overthrow it. It was, after all, the arch-determinist Marx who summed up his philosophy in the celebrated phrase: ‘Hitherto the philosophers have only interpreted the world – the task now is to change it.’

But Mr Berlin does not analyse. He does not even argue his case. He proclaims and declaims it. Like some other great rhetoricians, he is not over-scrupulous or over-precise in his statements. Let us be grateful for his superb, phenomenal rhetoric and submit to the rest as to a... historical inevitability.