To George Kennan- Isaiah Berlin
13 February 1951
New College, Oxford
I have ill rewarded your wonderful letter by leaving it so long unanswered. I received it towards the end of term here when I was genuinely worn out by teaching and examining, and scarcely capable of taking anything in, but even then it moved me profoundly. I took it off with me to Italy and read it and re-read it, and kept putting off the day on which I would write an answer worthy of it, but no such day ever came. I began many letters but each seemed trivial, and what the Russians call suetlivo ["in a fussy or bustling manner"]--full of hurrying sentences, scattered and moving in all directions at once, inappropriate either to the theme or to your words about it; but I cannot bear (if only because of the feelings which your letter excited in me) to say nothing merely because I am not sure how much I have to say. So you must forgive me if what I write is chaotic, not merely in form but in substance, and does little justice to your thesis. I shall simply go on and hope for the best, and beg you to pardon me if I am wasting your time.
I must begin by saying that you have put in words something which I believe not only to be the centre of the subject but something which, perhaps because of a certain reluctance to face the fundamental moral issue on which everything turns, I failed to say; but once forced to face it, I realise both that it is craven to sail round it as I have done, and moreover that it is, in fact, what I myself believe, and deeply believe, to be true; and more than this: that upon one's attitude to this issue, which you have put very plainly, and very, if I may say so, poignantly, depends one's entire moral outlook, i.e. everything one believes.
Let me try and say what I think it is; you say (and I am not quoting) that every man possesses a point of weakness, an Achilles' heel, and by exploiting this a man may be made a hero or a martyr or a rag. Again, if I understand you correctly, you think that Western civilisation has rested upon the principle that, whatever else was permitted or forbidden, the one heinous act which would destroy the world was to do precisely this--the deliberate act of tampering with human beings so as to make them behave in a way which, if they knew what they were doing, or what its consequences were likely to be, would make them recoil with horror and disgust. The whole of the Kantian morality (and I don't know about Catholics, but Protestants, Jews, Muslims and high-minded atheists believe it) lies in this; the mysterious phrase about men being "ends in themselves," to which much lip-service has been paid, with not much attempt to explain it, seems to lie in this: that every human being is assumed to possess the capacity to choose what to do, and what to be, however narrow the limits within which his choice may lie, however hemmed in by circumstances beyond his control; that all human love and respect rests upon the attribution of conscious motives in this sense; that all the categories, the concepts, in terms of which we think about and act towards one another--goodness, badness, integrity and lack of it, the attribution of dignity or honour to others which we must not insult or exploit, the entire cluster of ideas such as honesty, purity of motive, courage, sense of truth, sensibility, compassion, justice; and, on the other side, brutality, falseness, wickedness, ruthlessness, lack of scruple, corruption, lack of feelings, emptiness--all these notions in terms of which we think of others and ourselves, in terms of which conduct is assessed, purposes adopted--all this becomes meaningless unless we think of human beings as capable of pursuing ends for their own sakes by deliberate acts of choice--which alone makes nobility noble and sacrifices sacrifices.
The whole of that morality, which is most prominent in the nineteenth century, in particular in the romantic period, but implicit in both Christian and Jewish writings, and far less present in the pagan world, rests on the view that it is a marvellous thing in itself when a man pits himself against the world, and sacrifices himself to an ideal without reckoning the consequences, even when we consider his ideal false and its consequences disastrous. We admire purity of motive as such, and think it a wonderful thing--or at any rate deeply impressive, perhaps to be fought but never despised--when somebody throws away material advantage, reputation etc. for the sake of bearing witness to something which he believes to be true, however mistaken and fanatical we may think him to be. I do not say that we worship passionate self-abandonment or automatically prefer a desperate fanaticism to moderation and enlightened self-interest. Of course not; yet nevertheless we do think such conduct deeply moving, even when misdirected. We admire it always more than calculation; we at least understand the kind of aesthetic splendour which all defiance has for some people--Carlyle, Nietzsche, Leontiev [Konstantin Nikolaevich Leontiev, nineteenth-century Russian philosopher and critic] and Fascists generally. We think that only those human beings are a credit to their kind who do not let themselves be pushed too far by the forces of nature or history, either passively or by glorying in their own impotence; and we idealise only those who have purposes for which they accept responsibility, on which they stake something, and at times everything; living consciously and bravely for whatever they think good, i.e. worth living and, in the last resort, dying for.
All this may seem an enormous platitude, but, if it is true, this is, of course, what ultimately refutes utilitarianism and what makes Hegel and Marx such monstrous traitors to our civilisation. When, in the famous passage, Ivan Karamazov rejects the worlds upon worlds of happiness which may be bought at the price of the torture to death of one innocent child, what can utilitarians, even the most civilised and humane, say to him? After all, it is in a sense unreasonable to throw away so much human bliss purchased at so small a price as one--only one--innocent victim, done to death however horribly--what after all is one soul against the happiness of so many? Nevertheless, when Ivan says he would rather return the ticket, no reader of Dostoevsky thinks this cold-hearted or mad or irresponsible; and although a long course of Bentham or Hegel might turn one into a supporter of the Grand Inquisitor, qualms remain.
Ivan Karamazov cannot be totally exorcised; he speaks for us all, and this I take to be your point, and the foundation of your optimism. What I take you to say, and what I should have said myself if I had had the wit or the depth, is that the one thing which no utilitarian paradise, no promise of eternal harmony in the future within some vast organic whole will make us accept is the use of human beings as mere means--the doctoring of them until they are made to do what they do, not for the sake of the purposes which are their purposes, fulfilment of hopes which however foolish or desperate are at least their own, but for reasons which only we, the manipulators, who freely twist them for our purposes, can understand. What horrifies one about Soviet or Nazi practice is not merely the suffering and the cruelty, since although that is bad enough, it is something which history has produced too often, and to ignore its apparent inevitability is perhaps real Utopianism--no; what turns one inside out, and is indescribable, is the spectacle of one set of persons who so tamper and "get at" others that the others do their will without knowing what they are doing; and in this lose their status as free human beings, indeed as human beings at all.
When armies were slaughtered by other armies in the course of history, we might be appalled by the carnage and turn pacifist; but our horror acquires a new dimension when we read about children, or for that matter grown-up men and women, whom the Nazis loaded into trains bound for gas chambers, telling them that they were going to emigrate to some happier place. Why does this deception, which may in fact have diminished the anguish of the victims, arouse a really unutterable kind of horror in us? The spectacle, I mean, of the victims marching off in happy ignorance of their doom amid the smiling faces of their tormentors? Surely because we cannot bear the thought of human beings denied their last rights--of knowing the truth, of acting with at least the freedom of the condemned, of being able to face their destruction with fear or courage, according to their temperaments, but at least as human beings, armed with the power of choice. It is the denial to human beings of the possibility of choice, the getting them into one's power, the twisting them this way and that in accordance with one's whim, the destruction of their personality by creating unequal moral terms between the gaoler and the victim, whereby the gaoler knows what he is doing, and why, and plays upon the victim, i.e. treats him as a mere object and not as a subject whose motives, views, intentions have any intrinsic weight whatever--by destroying the very possibility of his having views, notions of a relevant kind--that is what cannot be borne at all.
What else horrifies us about unscrupulousness if not this? Why is the thought of someone twisting someone else round his little finger, even in innocent contexts, so beastly (for instance in Dostoevsky's Dyadyushkin son [Uncle's Dream, a novella published in 1859], which the Moscow Arts Theatre used to act so well and so cruelly)? After all, the victim may prefer to have no responsibility; the slave be happier in his slavery. Certainly we do not detest this kind of destruction of liberty merely because it denies liberty of action; there is a far greater horror in depriving men of the very capacity for freedom--that is the real sin against the Holy Ghost. Everything else is bearable so long as the possibility of goodness--of a state of affairs in which men freely choose, disinterestedly seek ends for their own sake--is still open, however much suffering they may have gone through. Their souls are destroyed only when this is no longer possible. It is when the desire for choice is broken that what men do thereby loses all moral value, and actions lose all significance (in terms of good and evil) in their own eyes; that is what is meant by destroying people's self-respect, by turning them, in your words, into rags. This is the ultimate horror because in such a situation there are no worthwhile motives left: nothing is worth doing or avoiding, the reasons for existing are gone. We admire Don Quixote, if we do, because he has a pure-hearted desire to do what is good, and he is pathetic because he is mad and his attempts are ludicrous.
For Hegel and for Marx (and possibly for Bentham, although he would have been horrified by the juxtaposition) Don Quixote is not merely absurd but immoral. Morality consists in doing what is good. Goodness is that which will satisfy one's nature. Only that will satisfy one's nature which is part of the historical stream along which one is carried willy-nilly, i.e. that which "the future" in any case holds in store. In some ultimate sense, failure is proof of a misunderstanding of history, of having chosen what is doomed to destruction, in preference to that which is destined to succeed. But to choose the former is "irrational," and since morality is rational choice, to seek that which will not come off is immoral. This doctrine that the moral and the good is the successful, and that failure is not only unfortunate but wicked, is at the heart of all that is most horrifying both in utilitarianism and in "historicism" of the Hegelian, Marxist type. For if only that were best which made one happiest in the long run, or that which accorded with some mysterious plan of history, there really would be no reason to "return the ticket." Provided that there was a reasonable probability that the new Soviet man might either be happier, even in some very long run, than his predecessors, or that history would be bound sooner or later to produce someone like him whether we liked it or not, to protest against him would be mere silly romanticism, "subjective," "idealistic," ultimately irresponsible. At most we would argue that the Russians were factually wrong and the Soviet method not the best for producing this desirable or inevitable type of man. But of course what we violently reject is not these questions of fact, but the very idea that there are any circumstances in which one has a right to get at, and shape, the characters and souls of other men for purposes which these men, if they realised what we were doing, might reject.
We distinguish to this extent between factual and value judgement--that we deny the right to tamper with human beings to an unlimited extent, whatever the truth about the laws of history; we might go further and deny the notion that "history" in some mysterious way "confers" upon us "rights" to do this or that; that some men or bodies of men can morally claim a right to our obedience because they, in some sense, carry out the behests of "history," are its chosen instrument, its medicine or scourge or in some important sense "Welthistorisch"--great, irresistible, riding the waves of the future, beyond our petty, subjective, not rationally bolsterable ideas of right and wrong. Many a German and I daresay many a Russian or Mongol or Chinese today feels that it is more adult to recognise the sheer immensity of the great events that shake the world, and play a part in history worthy of men by abandoning themselves to them, than by praising or damning and indulging in bourgeois moralisings: the notion that history must be applauded as such is the horrible German way out of the burden of moral choice.
If pushed to the extreme, this doctrine would, of course, do away with all education, since when we send children to school or influence them in other ways without obtaining their approval for what we are doing, are we not "tampering" with them, "moulding" them like pieces of clay with no purpose of their own? Our answer has to be that certainly all "moulding" is evil, and that if human beings at birth had the power of choice and the means of understanding the world, it would be criminal; since they have not, we temporarily enslave them, for fear that, otherwise, they will suffer worse misfortunes from nature and from men, and this "temporary enslavement" is a necessary evil until such time as they are able to choose for themselves--the "enslavement" having as its purpose not an inculcation of obedience but its contrary, the development of power of free judgement and choice; still, evil it remains, even if necessary.
Communists and Fascists maintain that this kind of "education" is needed not only for children but for entire nations for long periods, the slow withering away of the State corresponding to immaturity in the lives of individuals. The analogy is specious because peoples, nations are not individuals and still less children; moreover in promising maturity their practice belies their professions; that is to say, they are lying, and for the most part know that they are. From a necessary evil in the case of the education of helpless children, this kind of practice becomes an evil on a much larger scale, and quite gratuitous, based either on utilitarianism, which misrepresents our moral values, or again on metaphors which misdescribe both what we call good and bad, and the nature of the world, the facts themselves. For we, i.e. those who join with us, are more concerned with making people free than making them happy; we would rather that they chose badly than not at all; because we believe that unless they choose they cannot be either happy or unhappy in any sense in which these conditions are worth having; the very notion of "worth having" presupposes the choice of ends, a system of free preferences; and an undermining of them is what strikes us with such cold terror, worse than the most unjust sufferings, which nevertheless leave the possibility of knowing them for what they are--of free judgement, which makes it possible to condemn them--still open.
You say that men who in this way undermine the lives of other men will end by undermining themselves, and the whole evil system is therefore doomed to collapse. In the long run I am sure you are right, because open-eyed cynicism, the exploitation of others by men who avoid being exploited themselves, is an attitude difficult for human beings to keep up for very long. It needs too much discipline and appalling strain in an atmosphere of such mutual hatred and distrust as cannot last because there is not enough moral intensity or general fanaticism to keep it going. But still the run can be very long before it is over, and I do not believe that the corrosive force from inside will work away at the rate which perhaps you, more hopefully, anticipate. I feel that we must avoid being inverted Marxists. Marx and Hegel observed the economic corrosion in their lifetime, and so the revolution seemed to be always round the corner. They died without seeing it, and perhaps it would have taken centuries if Lenin had not given history a sharp jolt. Without the jolt, are moral forces alone sufficient to bury the Soviet grave-diggers? I doubt it. But that in the end the worm would eat them I doubt no more than you; but whereas you say that is an isolated evil, a monstrous scourge sent to try us, not connected with what goes on elsewhere, I cannot help seeing it as an extreme and distorted but only too typical form of some general attitude of mind from which our own countries are not exempt.
For saying this, E.H. Carr has attacked me with some violence, in a leading article in The Times Literary Supplement last June. This makes me believe I must be even more right than I thought, since his writings are among the more obvious symptoms of what I tried to analyse, and he rightly interprets my articles as an attack on all he stands for. All this comes out particularly in his last oeuvre--on the Russian Revolution--in which the opposition and the victims are not allowed to testify--feeble flotsam adequately taken care of by history, which has swept them away as, being against the current, they, eo ipso, deserve. Only the victors deserve to be heard; the rest--Pascal, Pierre Bezukhov, all Chekhov's people, all the critics and casualties of Deutschtum or White Man's Burdens, or the American Century, or the Common Man on the March--these are historical dust, lishnye lyudi ["superfluous men," in Turgenev's and Dostoevsky's term], those who have missed the bus of history, poor little rats inferior to Ibsenite rebels who are all potential Catilines and dictators. Surely there never was a time when more homage was paid to bullies as such: and the weaker the victim the louder (and sincerer) his paeans--vide E.H. Carr, Koestler, Burnham, Laski, passim? But I must not waste your time any further.
Once more I should like to say how deeply moved I was by your formulation of what it is that excites in us the unparalleled horror which we feel when we read of what goes on in Soviet territories, and to convey my admiration and unbounded moral respect for the insight and scruple with which you set it forth. These qualities seem to me unique at present; more than this I cannot say.
And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus