Isaiah Berlin on 'The Greatest Leader of Democracy in the 20th Century'

Isaiah Berlin on 'The Greatest Leader of Democracy in the 20th Century'
Published: Nov 08, 2020
Reading about politics has strained a lot of you lately, so we thought this essay from a whole other time, 1955, might be a welcome antidote. Philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) writes about the statesman Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, during the Second World War, he observed closely. Berlin served in the British Information Services in New York City (1940–42) and at the British Embassy in Washington, DC (1942-46), where he was responsible for drafting weekly reports on the American political scene.

FDR at convention, journal of wild culture ©2020

The governor of New York wins the nomination at the Democratic National Convention, Chicago, Illinois, June 27-July 2, 1932. [o]


If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e., is no longer 'leading' but only 'dominant,' exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously. The 'crisis of authority' consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

              — Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 1930


I NEVER met Mr. Roosevelt, and although I spent more than three years in Washington during the war, I never even saw him. I regret this, for it seems to me that to see and, in particular to hear the voice of someone who has occupied one's imagination for many years, must modify one's impression in some profound way, and make it somehow more concrete and three dimensional. However, I never did see him, and I heard him only over the wireless. Consequently, I must try to convey my impression with­out the benefit of personal acquaintance, and without, I ought to add, any expert knowledge of American history or that of inter­national relations. Nor am I competent to speak of Mr. Roose­velt's domestic or foreign policies: or the larger political or economic effect. I shall try to give only a personal impression of the general impact of his personality on my generation in Europe.

Such con­versations were sometimes followed by visits to Moscow or by fighting in Spain . . . or else bitter and angry disillusionment with communist practice.

When I say that some men occupy one's imagination for many years, this is literally true of Mr. Roosevelt and the young men of my own generation in England, and probably in many parts of Europe, and indeed the entire world. If one was young in the thirties, and lived in a democracy, then, whatever one's politics, if one had human feelings at all, the faintest spark of social ideal­ism, or any love of life whatever, one must have felt very much as young men in Continental Europe probably felt after the defeat of Napoleon during the years of the Restoration, that all was dark and quiet, a great reaction was abroad: and little stirred, and nothing resisted. It all began with the great slump of 1931, which undermined the feeling, perhaps quite baseless, of econ­omic security which a good many young people of the middle classes then had. There followed the iron thirties, of which the English poets of the time — Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, left a very vivid testament — the dark and leaden thirties, to which, alone of all periods, no one in Europe wishes to return, unless indeed they lament the passing of fascism. There came Manchuria, Hitler, the Hunger Marchers, the Abyssinian War, the Peace Ballot, the Left Book Club, M. Malraux’s political novels, even the article by Virginia Woolf in the Daily Worker [‘Why Art Today Follows Politics’, 1936], the Soviet trials and purges, the conversions of idealistic young liberals and radicals to communism, or strong sympathy with it, often for no better reason than that it seemed the only force firm enough and strong enough to resist the fascist enemy effectively; such con­versations were sometimes followed by visits to Moscow or by fighting in Spain, and death on the battlefield, or else bitter and angry disillusionment with communist practice, or some desper­ate and unconvinced choice between two evils of that which seemed the lesser.


Isaiah Berlin, Richard Avedon©, journal of wild culture ©2020

Isaiah Berlin, photographed by Richard Avedon. [o]


The most insistent propaganda in those days declared that humanitarianism and liberalism and democratic forces were played out, and that the choice now lay between two bleak extremes, communism and fascism — the red or the black. To those who were not carried away by this patter, the only light in the darkness that was left was the administration of Mr. Roosevelt and the New Deal in the United States. At a time of weakness and mounting despair in the democratic world, Mr. Roosevelt radiated confidence and strength. He was the leader of the demo­cratic world, and even to-day, upon him alone, of all the states­men of the thirties, no cloud rested neither on him nor on the New Deal, which to European eyes still looks a bright chapter in the history of mankind. It was true that his great social experi­ment was conducted with an isolationist disregard of the outside world, but then it was psychologically intelligible that America, which had come into being in the reaction against the follies and evils of a Europe perpetually distraught by religious or national struggles, should try to seek salvation undisturbed by the cur­rents of European life, particularly at a moment when Europe seemed about to collapse into a totalitarian nightmare. Mr. Roosevelt was therefore forgiven by those who found the Euro­pean situation tragic for pursuing no particular foreign policy, indeed for trying to do, if not without any foreign policy at all, at any rate with a minimum of relationship with the outside world, which was indeed to some degree part of the American political tradition.

His internal policy was plainly animated by a humanitarian purpose. After the unbridled individualism of the twenties which had led to economic collapse and widespread misery, he was seeking to establish new rules of social justice. He was trying to do this without forcing his country into some doctrinaire strait­ jacket, whether of socialism or state capitalism, or the kind of new social organization which the fascist regimes flaunted as the New Order. Social discontent was high in the United States, faith in business men as saviours of society had evaporated over­ night after the famous Wall Street crash, and Mr. Roosevelt was providing a vast safety valve for pent-up bitterness and indignation, and trying to prevent revolution and construct a regime which should provide for greater economic equality and social justice — ideals which were the best part of the tradition of American life — without altering the basis of freedom and demo­cracy in his country.

This was being done by what to unsympathetic critics seemed a haphazard collection of amateurs, college professors, journalists, personal friends, freelances of one kind or another, intellectuals, ideologists, what are nowadays called egg-heads, whose very appearance and methods of conducting business or constructing policies irritated the servants of old­ established government institutions in Washington and tidy­ minded conservatives of every type. Yet it was clear that the very amateurishness of these men, the fact that they were allowed to talk to their hearts' content, to experiment, to indulge in a vast amount of trial and error, that relations were personal and not institutional, bred its own vitality and enthusiasm. Washington was doubtless full of quarrels, resignations, palace intrigues, perpetual warfare between individuals and groups of individuals, parties, cliques, personal supporters of this or that great captain, which must have maddened sober and responsible officials used to the slower tempo and more normal patterns of administration; as for bankers and business men, their feelings were past describ­ing, but at this period they were little regarded, since they were considered to have discredited themselves too deeply, and indeed forever.


Young Franklin-D-Roosevelt, journal of wild culture ©2020

At 31, Roosevelt, a two-term state senator in New York, became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1913-1920. He was initially encouraged to enter politics by his cousin Theodore who urged young men of privileged backgrounds to enter public service. [o]


Over this vast, seething chaos presided a handsome, charming, gay, very intelligent, very delightful, very audacious roan, Mr. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was accused of many weaknesses. He had betrayed his class; be was ignorant, unscrupulous, irresponsible. He was ruthless in playing with the lives and careers of individuals. He was surrounded by adventurers, slick oppor­tunists, intriguers. He made conflicting promises, cynically and brazenly, to individuals and groups and representatives of foreign nations. He made up, with his vast and irresistible public charm, and his astonishing high spirits, for lack of other virtues, con­sidered as more important in the leader of the most powerful democracy in the world — the virtues of application, industry, responsibility. All this was said and some of it may indeed have been just. What attracted his followers were countervailing quali­ties of a rare and inspiring order: he was large-beaned and possessed wide political horizons; imaginative sweep, under­standing of the time in which he lived and of the direction of the great new forces at work in the twentieth century — technological, racial, imperialist, anti-imperialist; he was in favour of life and movement, the promotion of the most generous possible fullil­ment of the largest possible number of human wishes, and not in favour of caution and retrenchment and sitting still. Above all, he was absolutely fearless.

He was one of the few statesmen in the twentieth or any other century who seemed to have no fear at all of the future. He believed in his own strength and ability to manage, and succeed, whatever happened. He believed in the capacity and loyalty of his lieutenants, so that he looked upon the future with a calm eye, as if to say "Let it come, whatever it may be, it will all be grist to our great mill. We shall turn it all to benefit.” It was this, perhaps, more than any other quality, which drew men of very different outlooks to him. In a despondent world which appeared divided between wicked and fatally efficient fanatics marching to destroy, and bewildered populations on the run, unenthusiastic martyrs in a cause they could not define, he believed in his own ability, so long as he was at the control, to stem this terrible tide. He had all the character and energy and skill of the dictators, and he was on our side. He was, in his opinions and public action, every inch a democrat. All the political and personal and public criticism of him might be true; all the personal defects which his enemies and some of his friends attributed to him might be real; yet as a public figure he was unique. As the skies of Europe grew darker, in particular after war broke out, he seemed to the poor ind the unhappy in Europe a kind of benevolent demi-god, who alone could and would save them in the end. His moral authority — the degree of confidence which he inspired outside his own country — and far more beyond America's frontiers than within them at all times — has no parallel. Perhaps President Wilson, in the early days, after the end of the first world war, when he drove triumphantly through Paris and London, may have inspired some such feeling; but it disappeared quickly and left a terrible feeling of disenchantment behind it. It was plain even to his enemies that President Roosevelt would not be broken as President Wilson was. But to his prestige and to his personality he added a degree of  political skill — indeed virtuosity — which no American before him had ever possessed. His chance of realizing his wishes was plainly greater; his followers would be less likely to reap bitter disappointment.


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'His moral authority...has no parallel.' Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR Presidential Library & Museum. [o]


Indeed he was very different from Wilson. For they represent two contrasting types of statesmen, in each of which occasionally men of compelling stature appear. The first kind of statesman is essentially a man of single principle and fanatical vision. Pos­sessed by his own bright, coherent dream, he usually understands neither people nor events. He has no doubts or hesitations and by concentration of will power, directness, and strength he is able to ignore a great deal of what goes on outside him. This very blindness and stubborn self-absorption occasionally, in cer­tain situations, enables him to bend events and men to his own fixed pattern. His strength lies in the fact that weak and vacillating human beings, themselves too insecure or incapable of deciding between alternatives, find relief and peace and strength in submitting to the leadership of a single leader of superhuman size, to whom all issues are clear, whose universe consists en­tirely of primary colours, mostly black and white, and who marches towards his goal looking neither to right nor to left, buoyed up by the violent vision within him. Such men differ widely in moral and intellectual quality, like forces of nature, and do both good and harm in the world. To this type belong Gari­baldi, Trotsky, Parnell, De Gaulle, perhaps Lenin too — the distinction I am drawing is not a moral one, not one of value but one of type. There are great benefactors, like Wilson, as well as fearful evildoers, like Hitler, within this category. The other kind of effective statesman is  a naturally political being, as the simple hero is often explicitly anti-political and comes to rescue men, at least ostensibly, from the subtleties and frauds of political life. The second type of politician possesses antennae of the greatest possible delicacy, which convey to him, in ways difficult or im­possible to analyse, the perpetually changing contours of events and feelings and human activities round them — they are gifted with a peculiar, political sense fed on a capacity to take in minute impressions, to integrate a vast multitude of still evanescent unseizable detail, such as artists possess in relation to their material. Statesmen of this type know what to do and when to do it, if they are to achieve their ends, which themselves are usually not born within some private world of inner thought, or introverted feeling, but are the crystallization, the raising to great intensity and clarity of what a large number of their fellow citizens are thinking and feeling in some dim, inarticulate, but nevertheless persistent fashion. In virtue of this capacity to judge their material, very much as a sculptor knows what can be moulded out of wood and what out of marble, and how and when, they resemble doctors who have a natural gift for curing, which does not directly depend upon that knowledge of scientific anatomy, which can only be learned by observation or experi­ment, or from the experiences of others, though it could not exist without it. This instinctive, or at any rate incommunicable knowledge of where to look for what one needs, the power of divining where the treasure lies, is something common to many types of genius, to scientists and mathematicians no less than to business men and administrators and politicians. Such men, when they are statesmen, are acutely aware of which way the thoughts and feelings of human beings are flowing, and when life presses on them most heavily, and they convey to these human beings, a sense of understanding their inner needs, of responding to their own deepest impulses, above all of being alone capable of organizing the world along lines which the masses are instinctively groping for. To this type of statesman belonged Bismarck and Abraham Lincoln, Lloyd George and Thomas Masaryk, perhaps to some extent Gladstone, and to a minor degree Walpole. Roosevelt was a magnificent virtuoso of this type, and he was the most benevolent as well as the greatest master of his craft in modern times. He really did desire a better life for mankind. The great majorities which he obtained in the elections in the United States during his four terms of office, despite mounting hostility by the press, and perpetual prophecies on their part that he had gone too far, and would fail to be re­-elected, were ultimately due to an obscure feeling on the part of the majority of the citizens of the United States that he was on their side, that he wished them well, and that he would do some­ thing for them. And this feeling gradually spread over the entire civilized world. He became a legendary hero — they themselves did not know quite why — to the indigent and the oppressed, far beyond the confines of the English-speaking world.


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Divvying up the spoils at Yalta, February !945, two months before he died. [o]


As I said before, he was, by some of his opponents, accused of betraying his class, and so he had. When a man, who retains the manners, stylc of life, the emotional texture and the charm of the old order of some free aristocratic upbringing, revolts against his milieu and adopts the ideas and aspirations of the new, socially revolted class, and adopts them not out of expediency but out of genuine moral conviction, or from love of life, inability to re­main on the side of what seems to him narrow, mean, restrictive — the result is fascinating and attractive. This is what makes the figures of such men as Condorcet or Charles James Fox, or some of the Russian, Italian, and Polish revolutionaries in the nine­teenth century so attractive; for all we know this may have been the secret also of Moses or Pericles or Julius Caesar. It was this gentlemanly quality together with the tact that they felt him to be deeply committed to their side in the struggle and in favour of their way of life, as well as his open and fearless lack of neu­trality in the war against the Nazis and the fascists, that endeared him so deeply to the British people during the war years. I remember well, in London, in November 1940, how excited most people were about the result of the Presidential election in the United States. In theory they should not have worried. Mr. Willkie, the Republican candidate, had expressed himself for­cibly and sincerely as a supporter of the democracies. Yet it was absurd to say that the people of Britain were neutral in their feelings vis-à-vis the two candidates. They felt in their bones that Mr. Roosevelt was their lifelong friend, that he hated the Nazis as deeply as they did, that he wanted democracy and civilization, in the sense in which they believed in it, to prevail, and that he knew what he wanted, and that his goal resembled their own ideals more than it did those of all his opponents. They felt that his heart was in the right place, and did not, therefore, if they gave it a thought, care whether his political appointments were made under the influence of bosses or for personal reasons, or thoughtlessly; or whether his economic doctrines were heretical or whether he had a sufficiently scrupulous regard to the opinion of the Senate or the House of Representatives, or the prescrip­tions of the United States' constitution, or to the opinions of the Supreme Court. These matters were very remote from them. They knew that he would, to the extent of his enormous energy and ability, see them through. There is no such thing as long-lived mass hypnotism; the masses know what it is that they like, what genuinely appeals to them. What the Germans thought Hitler to be, Hitler, in fact, largely was, and what free men in Europe and in America and in Asia and in Africa and in Aus­tralia, and wherever else the rudiments of political thought stirred at all, what all these felt Roosevelt to be, he in fact was. He was the greatest leader of democracy, the greatest champion of social progress in the twentieth century. ≈ç


On Election Night, November 8, 1932, after Mr. Hoover had conceded and Father had been elected president of the United States, I went with Father from campaign headquarters in New York City to our townhouse on East 65th Street and helped him into bed. We talked a long time about a number of things. Then as I kissed him good night — a custom in our family — he looked up at me and said, “You know, Jimmy, all my life I have been afraid of only one thing — fire. Tonight I think I’m afraid of something else.”

“Afraid of what, Pa?” I asked.

“I’m just afraid,” he said, “that I may not have the strength to do this job. After you leave me tonight, Jimmy,” father continued, “I am going to pray. I am going to pray that God will help me, that He will give me the strength and the guidance to do this job and to do it right. I hope that you will pray for me too.”

I stood there a moment unable to say anything. Then I went to my room and did as he had asked me.

— Excerpted from “My Father FDR,” by James Roosevelt, published October 31, 1959


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SIR ISAIAH BERLIN (1909–97) was a British philosopher, historian of ideas, political theorist, educator, public intellectual and moralist, and essayist. He was renowned for his conversational brilliance, his defence of liberalism and pluralism, his opposition to political extremism and intellectual fanaticism, and his accessible, coruscating writings on people and ideas. His essay Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) contributed to a revival of interest in political theory in the English-speaking world, and remains one of the most influential and widely discussed texts in that field.



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