Edward Frame, review of of Samuel Moyn’s “Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times”

Samuel Moyn. Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 240 PP. Paper $27.50. ISBN: 9780300266214.

The cover of Liberalism Against Itself

The argument of Samuel Moyn’s new book, Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times, is captured by its first sentence: “Cold War liberalism was a catastrophe—for liberalism.” In six tidy chapters, Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale, proceeds to describe the defining features of that ideological monster—“Cold war liberalism”—explain how and why it came into being, and urge liberals today to overcome its lingering boundaries.

Moyn acknowledges that “liberalism” is a protean concept; it has meant different things to different people at different times. Yet, throughout the nineteenth century, most liberal intellectuals, Moyn claims, shared certain ideas and commitments. Among them: a broadly shared faith in the emancipatory potential of reason; a belief in “perfectionism,” or the capacity for moral, cultural, and political improvement; and finally, a shared sense of “progressivism,” or the confidence that history, though unpredictable, could be bent to human purposes. In short: the thrust of nineteenth-century liberalism was the fighting faith that, with wise guidance and deliberate interventions, freer and better worlds were possible.

All of this started to change in the 1950s, however, as “Cold War liberals,” shocked by the cruelty of the Holocaust and terrified by “totalitarianism,” abandoned many of these earlier commitments and expectations. Instead, they worked to re-define their common liberal creed in very different, primarily negative terms. Moyn focuses on six such liberals in particular—Judith Shklar (1928-1992), Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), Karl Popper (1902-1994), Gertrude Himmelfarb (1922-2019), Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), and Lionel Trilling (1905-1975)—each of whom, he argues, exorcised key aspects of the more positive nineteenth-century liberal tradition they inherited.

Shklar, he explains, was the first liberal of her generation to notice this process of re-definition was underway. Her first book After Utopia, published in 1957, argued that more progressive intellectual resources, including the Enlightenment era’s romantic and often radical visions of emancipated human agency, were once “central to liberalism” (18). Shklar also noted, however, that liberals were beginning to untether their basic concern—freedom—from the Enlightenment’s preoccupation with “moral and intellectual fulfillment” and instead reframe the concept as little more than the “absence of restraint” (33). She was therefore something of a counter-liberal for her time (and a prophet for Moyn): a skeptic who worried the intellectual resources that twentieth-century liberals were rapidly abandoning might ultimately work against their liberal aspirations.

Other “Cold War liberals,” in Moyn’s telling, were far more damaging. The remaining five figures in his book exemplify the steady elimination of the cornerstones of that earlier, more positive liberal inheritance. Berlin, he explains, turned against eighteenth-century Romanticism (and the creative personal and political agency it might encourage) to sharply defend “negative” liberty against the seductions of “positive” freedom.[1] Popper narrowly defined “historicism” as “a scientistic credo of inevitability that rationalized state terror,” thereby eliminating Marx and Hegel from the liberal canon and rejecting history as “a forum of opportunity for the acquisition and institutionalization of freedom” (69). Himmelfarb, drawing upon a wider resurgence of “Cold War religiosity,” asserted the immutable eternity of “moral laws” rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, putting a further, divinely ordained brake on hope for meaningful social or personal progress. Arendt, by turning a skeptical eye towards revolutionary movements in the Middle East and the Global South (except for Zionism), tended to “redefine liberalism of the metropole as libertarian” while “casting the postcolony as terroristic” (139). Finally, Trilling, having embraced the “resigned and tragic cast of Cold War liberal thought,” applied a similar ethos of detached realism, irony, and doubt to the private domain of the self, preaching a gospel of “self-subjugation and self-policing for the sake of personal and collective order” (142).

Moyn reports these transformations critically, but also sympathetically. He notes the good reasons why liberal intellectuals of that era tended to abhor “mass politics” and view freedom as “brittle and fragile and always on the verge of assault or collapse” (4). The horrors of the Second World War and the ideological contest with the Soviet Union were obvious factors; so was the fact that many Cold War liberals, including the six he focuses on, were Jews who “volunteered to defend the West at midcentury, while helping to reshape liberalism in fateful and lasting ways” (89-90). Moyn does not conclude that Cold War liberalism was a “Jewish phenomenon” (90), but he is sensitive to how his subjects experienced periods as displaced persons—and how those experiences shaped their thinking.

The overriding message of the book, however, is, once again, its opening sentence: “Cold War liberalism was a catastrophe—for liberalism.” Though Moyn is careful to note the limits and blind-spots of nineteenth-century liberal thought, he repeatedly insists that by placing “a ban on perfectionism, scapegoating bids for progress as terroristic, and treating the West as a refuge for freedom across civilizational lines of race and wealth while harshly disciplining the self” (165), Cold war liberals did a disservice to their more expansive liberal heritage. Worse: they helped lay the groundwork for even more damaging ideological monsters to come, above all neoconservatism and neoliberalism.

Moyn’s book is not without its faults, nor is his argument impervious to challenge. At a slender 240 pages (including notes), it is hardly exhaustive; like all works of intellectual history, it is vulnerable to the criticism that it places too much weight on the role of ideas and intellectuals in shaping the course of human events; Moyn’s voice is also breezy and polemical, often toeing an awkward line tonally somewhere between a newspaper editorial and a more traditional work of scholarship. Some reviewers have found fault with his analysis of particular figures[2] while others have complained he unfairly “reifies” liberalism as a concept, finding (or inventing) a coherent “tradition” where, in truth, one finds only “an inchoate and even contradictory collection of thinkers and political movements.”[3]

Nevertheless, it is hard to disagree with Moyn’s basic point: mid-twentieth-century liberals steered their thinking in less progressive, optimistic, and future-oriented directions, arguably to their disservice as defenders of “freedom” in hindsight—and our own. Nor is it easy to dismiss Moyn’s grim warning that, unless liberals now can figure out how to transcend the ideological boundaries established by their Cold War predecessors and “imagine a form of liberalism that is altogether original,” and more hopeful, “it does not seem likely that they will see their creed survive” (176). Indeed, the very word “liberal” has become something of a slur these days, an epithet hurled across the ideological spectrum to criticize everything from the broken promises of globalization and free market fundamentalism, to the failed nation-building and foreign wars of the last twenty years, to the tone-deafness of so-called “liberal elites” in media, the tech sector, government, and higher education, many of whom do sound like Moyn’s subjects whenever they counsel vast segments of the population to simply accept existing cultural or economic “realities.”

Moyn does not attempt to picture what precisely an “altogether original” re-imagination of liberalism suited to the twenty-first century might look like. He does, however, insist that it would almost certainly need to reincorporate the “impulses purged and left behind in the Cold War years, in particular its commitment to the emancipation of our powers” and the realization of our full agentic potential as human beings, “the creation of the new as the highest life” over and against bland acceptance of “reality,” and the “acquisition of both in a story that connects our past and our future” (176). His book therefore achieves a refreshing double purpose. It is both a provocative work of intellectual history as well as a bracing wake-up call and challenge to any self-described “liberal” today.

[1] See Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered Before the University of Oxford on 31 October 1958 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961).
[2] See, for example, John Ganz, “The Book of Liberal Maladies: On Samuel Moyn’s Cold War Liberalism,” Unpopular Front (blog), 18 January 2024 https://www.unpopularfront.news/p/the-book-of-liberal-maladies.
[3] David A. Bell, “The Anti-Liberal,” Liberties 4, no. 2 (Winter 2024) https://libertiesjournal.com/articles/the-anti-liberal/.

Edward Frame is doctoral candidate in History and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studies the history of higher education and U.S. intellectual and cultural history. He is currently completing an intellectual biography of the mid-twentieth-century philosopher and educational reformer Scott Buchanan, entitled Opening the American Mind: Education, Liberalism, and the Life of Scott Buchanan.

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