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Liberalism Against Itself:
Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times

by samuel moyn
yale university, 240 pages, $27.50

In the 1940s and 1950s, liberalism betrayed itself. Whereas once it had offered an ambitious vision of human perfection, now it began to insist on man’s fallen nature. Rather than propose a bold account of historical progress, it warned that visions of a blissful tomorrow could justify bloody crimes today. Instead of promoting a strong state as a means of extending liberty, it cast government as a threat to freedom. Cowed by Nazi crimes and Soviet tyranny, liberals exchanged hope for fear.

So argues Samuel Moyn in Liberalism Against Itself, a book that joins Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and R. R. Reno’s Return of the Strong Gods as a central text of the liberalism debates that arose in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Moyn, an intellectual historian and law professor at Yale, has written the most important statement of left-wing dissatisfaction with prevailing liberalism. His book is essential to understanding why a certain form of liberalism has drawn a growing list of challengers—but has yet to be displaced.

Moyn traces today’s crisis of liberalism to a fateful choice made by intellectuals at the outset of the Cold War. He tells this story by means of interrelated portraits. His subjects—Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling—were far less influential than such like-minded public intellectuals as Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger, and Raymond Aron. But Moyn is able to show how their works illuminate the dilemmas faced by liberal intellectuals more broadly.

Horrified by the course of Soviet communism, the “Cold War liberals” Moyn profiles attempted to construct a form of liberalism that was inoculated against utopian fantasies. Doing so required anathematizing figures and movements that had once been regarded as part of the liberal inheritance. The Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Rousseau were out. Acton, Burke, and Tocqueville were in as the representatives of a liberalism more skeptical of the state and open to religious faith. 

Moyn argues that the Cold War liberals “overreacted to the threat the Soviets posed” not just in their intellectual rejection of liberalism’s “perfectionism and its progressivism,” but also in their politics—adopting an excessively confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union and blinding themselves to the liberatory potential of decolonial movements. 

In some of the book’s best passages, Moyn discovers valuable insights in his ideological opposites. Even as he faults Gertrude Himmelfarb for grounding liberalism in a vision of original sin that chastened political ambition, he praises her perceptiveness regarding Lord Acton. Friedrich Hayek had suggested that Acton was a conservative in the mold of Burke, who preferred the concrete to the abstract and sought to defend Britain’s unwritten constitution. But as Himmelfarb observed, Acton “exalted the role of abstract ideas and absolute moral ideals, abjured any reverence for constitutions and laws, and denied that moderation was the cardinal principle of political action.” In this way, he was closer to Rousseau, whom Hayek deplored, than to Burke, whom Hayek revered.

Despite such moments, Moyn’s assessment of the Cold War liberals is overwhelmingly negative. He faults them for crafting an “excessively libertarian” liberalism that was mistrustful of the state. This legacy has haunted liberalism ever since. Moyn concludes that liberals in the sixties and seventies “deserve a great deal of credit for glimpsing limits to the racial and sexual contracts of historic liberalism.” But because they had inherited the Cold War liberals’ skepticism of state action, they created a form of politics in which “class inequality surged even as other forms of subordination were confronted.”

Elements of this history are debatable. Cold War liberals may have been committed anti-communists, but they were hardly libertarian. As a group, they favored the expansion of the welfare state and the dismantling of Jim Crow. Harry S. Truman, who oversaw the beginning of the Cold War, also desegregated the armed forces and proposed universal healthcare. On these scores, Moyn has more reason to praise than blame the Cold War liberals.

Yet his interest is not strictly historical. As he acknowledges in an afterword, his critique of the liberalism of the forties and fifties is in part a response to the failures and excesses of those who claim its mantle today. By the 2010s, the “liberalism of fear,” as Shklar called it, had degraded into a kind of permanent anxiety. Threats ranging from Brexit to Bernie Sanders were decried as existential threats to the open society. But as Moyn observes, these threats have generally “proved less catastrophic” than their critics feared. Like Reno in Return of the Strong Gods, Moyn argues that a fixation on the threats of the twentieth century has blinded us to the challenges of the twenty-first.

For Moyn, the solution is a reclamation of an ambitious liberalism, one that acknowledges the necessity of pursuing “self-creation as the highest liberal value.” But isn’t that the form of liberalism we already have? We observe it most clearly in the rise of “pride”—the valorization of liberated self-expression associated with, but extending beyond, the advance of gay rights. Justice Anthony Kennedy began his majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges by proclaiming that the Constitution guarantees a right of persons to “define and express their identity.” No doubt Moyn would like to see this endorsement of self-creation pressed further. And it has been, in the campaign for trans rights. 

Moyn’s sharpest dissent from the legacy of Cold War liberalism is on matters of foreign policy. All the figures he profiles tended to associate the traditions of liberty with England and America. They also distrusted the movement for decolonization, seeing in it “an alibi for tyranny and violence.” Moyn argues that this distrust blinded them to “the greatest moment of globalizing freedom in world history,” as they ignored or opposed decolonial movements in the developing world. 

Were the Cold War liberals right to doubt the moral promise of decolonization? The question is particularly important in the wake of the October 7 atrocities committed by Hamas. On parts of the left, the bloodshed was defended as an element of liberation. Najma Sharif, a Somali-American writer, tweeted, “What did y’all think decolonization meant? vibes? papers? essays? losers.” Her post received thousands of likes, including from prominent writers and editors. I share Moyn’s worry that raising the alarm about liberalism’s external enemies may be an excuse for overlooking its internal problems. But the celebration of Hamas’s attack is a reminder that Cold War liberals had good reasons to be wary of decolonial rhetoric.

In countless ways, liberalism has failed. But nothing seems ready to emerge in its place. Occupy’s class concerns were quickly swamped by identity politics. Bernie was a bust. Corbyn, too. Trump was neither the existential threat to democracy his opponents warned against nor the radical break his supporters hoped for. Trump began, and Joe Biden has continued, a shift away from certain neoliberal orthodoxies. But these halting moves are a far cry from revolutionary change. Moyn, realizing this, argues for a better kind of liberalism. But today’s liberalism won’t be improved by shaking off the influence of the Cold War liberals. As thinkers who supported a welfare state along with a free-market economy, who defended intellectual freedom while respecting religious authority, and who rejected pacifism along with the most hawkish fantasies, they have lessons to teach us still.

Matthew Schmitz is a founder and editor of Compact.

Image by Mikhail Fomichev licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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