Populism: A Berlinian Critique

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How would Isaiah Berlin assess the current wave of authoritarian populism? The question is worth asking both for the light it casts on populism and for what it tells us about Berlin. In several respects, his view of populism is ambivalent: he is surprisingly sympathetic to the Russian populists of the nineteenth century, sharing their concern for genuine democracy and their reservations about elite leadership; he is especially troubled by the possibility of rule by scientific experts, although he does not reject elite judgement entirely; and his assessment of successful political judgement is not as clearly opposed to the kind of charismatic leadership favoured by many populists (for example, the leadership of Donald Trump) as one might expect. It is only in his treatment of individual liberty and value pluralism that Berlin provides anti-populists with more emphatic arguments, especially when his value pluralism is developed as “liberal pluralism.” Overall, the application of Berlin’s ideas to populism highlights some of his familiar themes but also shows how his work can be extended in interesting ways. In particular, his sympathy with the Russian populists suggests that he is more of a democrat than is often assumed, and the application to populism of his famous thesis about the dangers of positive liberty can be extended to negative liberty too.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)708-721
Number of pages14
Issue number5
Early online date1 Aug 2023
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2023


  • Donald Trump
  • Isaiah Berlin
  • Leadership
  • Liberty
  • Populism
  • Value pluralism


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