Letter: Holes in the wall round Berlin

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The Independent Online
THE tributes to Isaiah Berlin ('The voice of Isaiah', Review, 5 June) revealed more about the muddled views of Britain's self-appointed cultural elite than about its 'most famous living thinker'. Berlin places a high value on 'compromise' but is an ardent Zionist. He stands for 'tolerance and pluralism' but misrepresents all hopes for social change as dangerous Utopias. He leads 'the life of the intellect in its purest . . . form' but also enjoys the privileges and comforts of the richest and smuggest university in the country. He argues that there is no absolute good but has a fetish about the 'negative liberty' by which many of his former pupils have grown rich and powerful. A great thinker, a confused one - or worse?

Berlin has produced one good book, some entertaining essays and numerous reworkings of 19th-century liberal cliches. But his own liberalism offers an apologia for injustice, not a critique of it. No wonder Mario Vargas Llosa appropriates his ideas; no wonder John Bayley and Iris Murdoch gush over him. As for Alasdair MacIntyre, has he forgotten that broadcast long ago in which he appealed to the British working class to reject the system that exploits and oppresses them, including its tame academics? Britain, and the rest of the world, would be better off if there were more thinkers addressing the ills of the contemporary world and somewhat fewer content to be 'playful' and 'pragmatic' over drinks in the Senior Common Room.

Patrick Heenan and

Monique Lamontagne

London W2