Liberalism against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times 
by Samuel Moyn.
Yale, 229 pp., £20, October 2023, 978 0 300 26621 4
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Samuel Moyn​ didn’t begin his career as a crusading left-wing critic of liberalism. His earliest writings were on 20th-century French intellectual history: erudite studies of Emmanuel Levinas, Pierre Clastres, Claude Lefort, Pierre Vidal-Naquet. But he always had an interest in foreign policy as actually practised and in 1999, while still a graduate student, he interned at Clinton’s National Security Council, beguiled by the ‘romance’ of human rights-driven foreign policy. As the US military pursued its mission in Kosovo, seen by many at the time as a model of beneficent liberal interventionism, Moyn helped to write an op-ed in the New York Times – under Clinton’s byline – headed ‘A Just and Necessary War’. It argued for the necessity of action, in whatever part of the world, against such crimes as ethnic cleansing.

In the years following 2001, however, his views changed. Looking back at the Yugoslav wars, he declared that the military involvement he had once supported had been ‘an assertion of American hegemony’. His subsequent atonement for his early lapse has led to such books as Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (2018), which argues that human rights advocacy has done nothing to rid the world of material inequality, and Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War (2021), which aims to show that liberal attempts to make war less beastly have only resulted in wars becoming more common and lasting longer.

What has made him such a prominent voice on the left, and an inspiration to many younger leftists, is his willingness to reiterate his scathing criticisms of American liberalism at a time when it is also being attacked from the populist, xenophobic, racist and authoritarian right. If he has been able to put himself forward as a kind of leader it is because he has tapped a deep well of left-wing anti-liberalism. His combative and self-assured tone helps. A characteristic example of his provocative style is his claim, made after Trump won the presidency in 2016, that Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans were being ‘hysterical’ when they saw Trump as a danger to democracy, since democracy barely exists in America anyway.

His new book isn’t, as he admits, a comprehensive history of Cold War liberalism. Instead, it’s a j’accuse against a handful of writers Moyn calls the ‘leading spokespeople of Cold War liberal political theory’. It began as the Oxford Carlyle lectures, and its central argument is somewhat hard to pin down, but the gist is that Cold War liberals were led astray by their obsession with Soviet communism, whose dangers they exaggerated, causing them to break sharply with the optimistic liberalism of the past and to embrace a ‘forlorn’ liberalism bereft of any hope of a better future. Only four of the people he classifies as Cold War liberals are discussed at any length: Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Lionel Trilling and Judith Shklar. It is a small sample from which to distil generalisations about the moral failings of an age, but that is what Moyn sets out to do.

His approach to their writings is prosecutorial, one charge being that they provided ‘a rationale for a Cold War struggle that unnecessarily killed millions’. The basis for this accusation is unclear. He alludes in a footnote to Berlin’s support for the Vietnam War but says little else about his subjects’ supposed hawkish tendencies. Perhaps he is suggesting, reasonably enough, that some Cold War liberals, in their focus on Soviet wrongdoing, ignored or denied or soft-pedalled crimes committed by the US and its allies. In any case, Moyn focuses less on the unspecified evils that his four Cold War liberals authorised or excused than on the positive outcomes that their writings allegedly made it difficult if not impossible to pursue.

The horrors of the 20th century, he suggests, spooked all four into adopting the ‘resigned and tragic’ posture that he takes to be typical of ‘Cold War liberal political thought’. They were so anxious to build barriers against tyranny, he explains, that they let slip real chances to promote personal and collective ‘emancipation’. He bases this indictment on a few well-known ideas from the prolific writings of each of his characters: Berlin’s prizing of freedom from external interference over freedom to realise one’s potential; Shklar’s defence of the ‘liberalism of fear’ that prioritised defence against the cruelty of concentration camps and the Gulag over social justice; Trilling’s belief, in Moyn’s words, that ‘utopianism makes things worse, not least by co-opting good intentions and high ideals for bad ends and violent solutions’; and Popper’s rejection of the Hegelian notion that freedom develops progressively through time.

On this slender basis, Moyn proceeds to accuse Berlin, Popper, Trilling and Shklar of believing that all attempts to build a more egalitarian society and to achieve ‘creative freedom on a mass scale’ are doomed to fail – and indeed that all efforts to make the world better inevitably end up making it worse. He writes that Trilling was archetypal in denouncing ‘the aspiration to universal freedom and equality’ – and the whole emancipatory project of the European Enlightenment – as nothing but ‘a pretext for repression and violence’. Even if moral progress were possible (which they apparently insisted it wasn’t), it would, they coolly noted, always be reversible. More radically, they are said to have blamed social justice movements for instigating tyranny, contending that ‘ideologies of progress’ are destined to produce ‘abominations’.

Moyn argues that Cold War liberals – and not merely his chosen four – saw democracy as ‘a recipe for totalitarianism’. He even accuses some of equating ‘democracy and terror’. He is right to say that anti-communist liberals usually opposed revolutionary violence on the grounds that ‘long-range ends could never justify short-term crimes,’ repudiating ‘any notion that the furtherance of a better future functioned as a justification for immorality now’. It was inherently wrong, they argued, to sacrifice the current generation in order to achieve a just society in the future. Disagreeing with this moral stance, Moyn writes that Cold War liberals’ ‘hatred of Jacobin radicalism’ was so extreme that they could see nothing even remotely emancipatory about the Terror in 1793.

Moyn’s Cold War liberals supposedly denied that an activist state could ever make a positive contribution to freedom and equality, for example, by checking the power of private capital. As stalking horses for Cold War conservatives, we’re told, they should bear some responsibility for later attacks on welfare programmes, having helped to ‘lay the groundwork’ for the Reaganite (or Thatcherite) assault on the welfare state. Their writings allegedly ‘gave rise to’ or ‘created the conditions for’ neoliberalism. Soaring into metaphor to conceal the tenuousness of such causal claims, Moyn compares Cold War liberalism to ‘the mythological character who angered the gods and was condemned to give birth to monsters’. Finally, the Eurocentrism of his Cold War liberals is said to reveal their racist attitudes towards the global South. Moyn describes their disdain when ‘the horrifying periphery threw in its lot with the French Revolution’s nationalist and violent tradition’ and they condemned decolonisation as ‘a road to serfdom and terror’.

Moyn issues these charges as an alternative to the excessively worshipful treatment of Cold War liberals to which he was exposed as a student, blinding him to liberalism’s morally objectionable aspects. He is also irritated by ‘promotional accounts of Cold War liberalism’ that have been reiterated recently by public intellectuals such as Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier. To hold his own against such adversaries, he suggests that he isn’t speaking solely for himself. Instead, he is giving recognition to the ‘millennial and post-millennial generations’ who find little in liberalism worth saving and are ‘concerned much less with enemies abroad than with economic inequality, endless war and environmental disaster’.

The radical nature of Moyn’s interpretation of the Cold War has two dimensions. First, he dismisses without discussion the traditional view, or cliché, that the Cold War was a struggle between two Enlightenment powers – one focused on liberty, the other on equality – and that both powers, having jointly defeated Hitler in the Second World War, were convinced that history was on their side. As Moyn sees it, only the Soviet Union was an Enlightenment power, and only the Soviet Union thought history was on its side. Western liberals denied that human history is a story of progress towards freedom and equality. This, he contends, is why they ceded ‘to the Soviets and their myth of scientific progress the philosophy of history that had once made liberal ambition imaginable’.

One of Moyn’s most arresting claims is that Cold War liberal theory had little or no relation to Cold War liberal practice. There was a shocking ‘mismatch’, he writes, ‘between the libertarianism of Cold War thought and the emergence of the welfare state’. Turning briefly from the world of books, which is Moyn’s domain, to the practical politics that he mostly ignores, we learn that the Cold War was ‘a time when liberals around the world were building the most ambitious and interventionist and largest – as well as the most egalitarian and redistributive – liberal states that had ever existed’. This was spectacularly true of the uniquely prosperous postwar US, where the highest and most progressive marginal tax rates in American history suggest that mainstream politicians weren’t at all dogmatic ‘votaries of freedom from the state’, which is how Moyn describes his theorists. Bipartisan support for Eisenhower’s costly Interstate Highway System demonstrates the point. Government action, far from being seen as a mortal enemy to liberty, was understood as the most effective means for making a variety of freedoms available to the most people.

Moyn’s thesis of a radical mismatch between liberal theory as he imagines it and liberal practice as he observes it has some basis. Few elected politicians responded to the challenge of Sputnik, for example, with a ‘vilification of progress’. The progressive American politicians of the time recognised that one way of responding to the Soviet challenge was in fact to expand the welfare state, offering unemployment insurance, government-backed mortgages, affordable housing programmes, federally financed health research, federal non-discrimination mandates and ‘pump-priming’ policies of deficit spending and easy credit – all of which provided an inoculation against the communist temptation. Moyn writes as though his Cold War intellectuals were so untethered from reality that this was an argument they hadn’t heard. It wasn’t until John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), Moyn claims, that a liberal philosopher thought of defending cash transfer programmes.

Moyn doesn’t really believe that his four Cold War liberals, much less all those to whom that label might conceivably be applied, are a single creature with a single mind. So how did he decide on his ‘composite portrait’, and what does it exclude? Readers who wish Moyn had written a different book about different liberals will object that there were many liberal thinkers at the time – for instance, the self-identified members of the anti-communist left associated with Americans for Democratic Action – who believed that activist government could expand opportunities for all. Far from being fatalists and diehard enemies of progress, they may even have been overconfident about the power of democratically elected political authority to regulate the market for moral reasons, to reduce poverty, to increase educational opportunity, to avoid war. The real road to serfdom, according to Cold War liberals of this sort, wasn’t government planning but the failure of democracies to improve the lives of ordinary citizens, stoking populist grievances and making workers susceptible to the siren song of communism.

But there is no point wishing Moyn had written a different book. He is perfectly aware that ‘more familiar Cold War sages’ – such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Richard Hofstadter or J.K. Galbraith, none of whom repudiated ‘the more progressivist optimism of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency’ – provided a ‘theoretical rendition of liberalism’ very different from that of the writers he describes as Cold War liberalism’s ‘principal thinkers’. He did not choose his dramatis personae because they represented the entire gamut of liberal thinking. He selected them in order to cast an ‘unexpected light on critical features of their time’, and to that end he also devotes space to such non-liberal figures as the Cold War conservative Gertrude Himmelfarb, who serves to emphasise ‘the elective affinities and occasional alliances between Cold War liberalism and its sequels of neoconservatism and neoliberalism’. His reasons for including Hannah Arendt are more obscure, but seem related to his interest in the way his Cold War liberals, all of them Jewish, ‘performed their Jewish identities’, especially in relation to Zionism, ‘the nationalist movement with which … they were likeliest to affiliate’. His charge seems to be that their liberal universalism disguised their ethnic particularism, since they opposed violent nationalism in the decolonising world but not in the case of Israel.

None of Moyn’s theorists is beyond criticism, of course. Berlin believed, Moyn claims, that ‘Britain’s global expansion had been benign for the colonised.’ Popper’s interpretation of Hegel was a notorious embarrassment. And so on. But what’s alarming is the nonchalant tone in which Moyn admits that his general characterisation of his Cold War liberals fails to do justice to the complexity of their thought. After piecing together his ideal type of the Cold War liberal, he proceeds to tear it to shreds. None of his four believed that the rejection of utopian thinking, including the illusion that history has a moral direction, made progress impossible. If we read them carefully, we realise that they didn’t oppose the welfare state and didn’t think democracy led inevitably to totalitarianism. Nor, as proponents of social insurance and desegregation, can they be fairly accused of entirely replacing hope with fear.

Moyn implicitly concedes all this. Viewed separately, none of his Cold War liberals endorsed all the tenets he ascribes to them as a group. His charge that they were necessarily allies of free-market fundamentalists illustrates the pattern. Not only did their thinking supposedly ‘evolve into neoliberalism’, it ‘collapsed into neoliberalism’. This is a bold but ultimately unprovable generalisation, and it is interesting to see the way Moyn immunises it against counterexamples by rescinding it. He freely accepts that the leading Cold War liberals ‘never embraced neoliberalism personally’. To clinch the reversal, he adds that ‘no one could claim that neoliberalism was representative of liberal theory at the time.’

There are further examples. As an ensemble, Moyn argues, Cold War liberals claimed that ‘liberty faced extinction if calls for economic fairness got the upper hand.’ Looked at individually, however, ‘Cold War liberals occasionally conceded that liberty might require some kind of equal standing in society and politics.’ Before generalising that ‘Cold War liberals abandoned the Enlightenment,’ he admits that Shklar ‘never, throughout her career, came close to relinquishing the Enlightenment’. Similarly, after explaining that the representative Cold War liberal ‘blamed Romanticism itself for the modern evils of Romantic nationalism, statism and ultimately totalitarianism’, Moyn concedes that Berlin, ‘the most iconic Cold War liberal thinker’, nevertheless ‘made a fundamental and positive place for political Romanticism … in the origins of liberalism’. Trilling, too, refused to hold Romanticism ‘accountable for our modern woes’. After explaining that ‘Cold War liberals canonised Freud’ in order ‘to insist on an original form of liberalism premised on durable limits to reform’, Moyn admits that Popper curtly ‘dismissed psychoanalysis as unfalsifiable pseudoscience’. And after stating that ‘the archetypal Cold War liberal text’ draws a ‘direct, teleological path from Rousseau to Stalin’, Moyn topples his own straw man by reminding his readers that Shklar rejected ‘the characteristic Cold War liberal vilification of Rousseau’ and ‘went on to spend much of her career defending Rousseau from blame for the excesses of revolution’.

The task​ facing readers is to examine Moyn’s serial pirouettes from generalisation to exception. One way is to look more closely at his reading of Shklar’s first book, After Utopia (1957). Moyn explains that ‘Shklar is my guide throughout this book. She will have to serve less as a Beatrice than a Virgil, whom we follow across a hellish landscape in the hope that purgatory – if not heaven – lies beyond.’ Elsewhere, he calls her his ‘muse’. After Utopia, he explains, ‘offered an implacable critique and diagnosis of Cold War liberalism’. Indeed, if he is to be believed, ‘Shklar’s essay remains the greatest anatomy and critique of Cold War liberalism ever composed.’

But he is not to be believed. Rather than excoriating a single school of thought, in After Utopia Shklar tangles ingeniously with hundreds of theorists of all political shades. Nor does she treat 1947, usually considered the year in which the Cold War began, as a cultural turning point of any significance, much less as the moment when liberalism made a sudden right turn. Her focus is on gradual, long-term change. It was the French Revolution, after all, that first made liberals lose faith in themselves. After Utopia does argue that an avalanche of historical disasters, starting with the First World War, further discredited an optimistic reading of history as an inevitable unfolding of moral progress. But Shklar’s point was that there were historical reasons for cultural pessimism. She writes that the ‘sense of political helplessness induced by years of instability, war and totalitarianism’ afflicted all contemporary currents of political thought. Socialists, Christians and existentialists all succumbed to a sense of fatalism and resignation that made utopian thinking and the radical politics it once inspired appear ‘simple-minded, or even worse … a contemptible form of complacency’.

Shklar identifies only one significant group of theorists that could be called liberals and also shared this fatalism: the libertarians we today associate with Friedrich Hayek. Although their ‘conservative liberalism’ can’t be blamed for cultural fatalism, which was ‘inescapable’ at the time, there is ‘no reason why the theories advanced in its defence should be uncritically accepted’. She proceeds to eviscerate the baseless libertarian argument that ‘any economic planning by the state must and has led to political tyranny and implies the end of civilisation.’ She includes among these theorists Jacob Talmon, principally for his belief that ‘democracy is inherently totalitarian.’ This is ironic, since her main argument against Talmon’s The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy (1952) applies with equal plausibility to Moyn’s book. Ascribing ‘an exaggerated importance’ to philosophy ‘as an agent of social change’, conservative liberals try to make ‘the professional intellectual and his works … directly responsible for every social misfortune’. It is an egregious fallacy, in Shklar’s view, to impugn ‘the inner validity of a theory’ by looking to ‘its presumed social effects’. Criticising a theory for its ‘morally undesirable consequences’, she concludes, is illogical. She could easily be writing here about Moyn’s own claim that ‘Cold War liberal assumptions have had devastating consequences.’ Talmon crudely holds ‘men of ideas … responsible if history has gone wrong’. Moyn names François Furet as ‘effectively Talmon’s most influential disciple’ – but, on this showing, no one could be a more dedicated disciple than Moyn himself.

There are many other ways in which After Utopia provides little support for Moyn’s arguments. For Moyn, Cold War liberals rejected the radical politics of the Enlightenment when they turned against the Marxist theory of history. For the early Shklar, rightly or wrongly, Marxism began ‘by explicitly and resolutely rejecting the philosophy of the Enlightenment’. She also claims that Marx and Marxism were ‘far closer to the conservative doctrine of … necessity in society than to the radical notion that men make their own history freely’. Similarly, Moyn associates Romanticism with agency and emancipation, while Shklar associates it with their obliteration. She also describes Romantic thinkers as fundamentally anti-political, citing the arguments of Carl Schmitt’s Politische Romantik. (Curiously, Moyn claims that Shklar didn’t know Schmitt’s book, even though After Utopia, to which he has written an introduction, both cites and discusses it.)

But the strangest aspect of Moyn’s account is the openly contradictory way he treats his own thesis. After insisting on the fatal fissure in the continuity of liberal theory caused by the Cold War, he ends up confessing that in fact this imagined rupture between good and bad liberalism never actually occurred. The conceit that Cold War liberals betrayed a morally inspiring prelapsarian liberalism is central to his argument. That earlier liberalism is said to have been ‘emancipatory and futuristic before the Cold War, committed most of all to free and equal self-creation, accepting of democracy and welfare’. It’s only by making a sharp distinction between earlier and later liberalisms that Moyn is able to argue that ‘Cold War liberalism was a betrayal of liberalism itself’ and that it ‘broke with the liberalism it inherited’.

Yet this pivotal chronological distinction dissolves in his own hands. Long before the Cold War, he informs us, ‘19th-century liberalism opened the gates of the liberal citadel to conservatism.’ Similarly, ‘before the Cold War, liberalism largely served as an apologia for laissez-faire economic policy and was entangled in imperialist expansion and racist hierarchy around the world.’ By emphasising the continuity between Cold War liberalism as he has described it and the liberalism that preceded it, Moyn is recanting the premise on which his entire book is based. Passages such as these, stressing liberal continuity over liberal rupture, belie Moyn’s claim that Cold War liberalism was ‘an entirely new version’ of liberalism. They also eliminate any hope of recovering a worthy form of liberalism from the past. At the very beginning of the book, Moyn quietly inserts what we can only call a pre-emptive retraction, explicitly denying that ‘there exists some pre-Cold War form of liberalism to revive.’ With no liberating tradition to rehabilitate, Moyn ends up ‘reaching back to before the Cold War creed … for the sake of an entirely new version’.

We are told little of substance about what this ‘entirely new version’ of liberalism entails. It aims at establishing a ‘free community of equals’, based on the belief that ‘creative experimentation and originality’ is ‘the highest life for human beings’ and that ‘creative self-making’ can be achieved ‘in historical time’. This is not very specific. All we are told about the way to bring about such an ideal state of affairs is that learning to see ‘history’ as ‘a forum of opportunity for individual and collective agency and self-assertion’ will help. Unhelpful, by contrast, are Moyn’s Cold War liberals, constantly invoking the tragedies of the 20th century to remind us that ‘opportunities’ can be seized by malevolent agents, not to mention that ‘self-assertion’ is just as likely to be cruel as creative.

Most criticisms of Liberalism against Itself have focused on the paradox that Moyn, who can’t abide America’s post-Cold War attempt to remake the world in its own image, has no sympathy for the sustained attack by Cold War liberals on America’s messianic hubris. But another, equally perplexing question is raised by this singular book. Moyn knows perfectly well that the ‘millennial and post-millennial generations’ he praises for focusing on ‘environmental disaster’ entertain a far darker picture of the future than anything he has discovered in the writings of his Cold War theorists. Yet he doesn’t blame them for replacing hope for perfection with fear of apocalypse. After all, they are merely responding to the climate catastrophe unfolding before their eyes. Why doesn’t he extend the same absolution to his Cold War liberals? ‘Survivalism’ can’t be an index of censure for one generation and merit for the next – unless Moyn believes that the horrors of world war and the prospect of nuclear apocalypse were less real for his Cold War liberals than impending climate collapse is for his peers today.

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