Book Reviews

Dangers and Enemies Everywhere

How Cold War liberalism abandoned the vocabulary of hope—and how we still live with the consequences.

By George Scialabba

Tagged Liberalism

Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times by Samuel Moyn Yale University Press • 2023 • 240 pages $27.50

The Cold War has a lot to answer for: trillions of dollars of wasteful military spending; a couple of nuclear close shaves, either of which might easily have led to a nuclear exchange, with unimaginable consequences; and during the late 1940s and early ’50s, thousands of American lives ruined or marred by congressional witch hunts and an unchecked FBI. It also, according to Samuel Moyn’s original and penetrating new book, swallowed up our political imagination.

In the last few decades, liberalism has undergone a bewildering succession of attacks, vindications, anatomies, autopsies, and resurrections. It has been denounced as the upholder of the unholy capitalist political order and as the destroyer of the sacred Christian moral order. Evidently liberalism is for Americans—to adapt Madeleine Albright’s unfortunate phrase—the indispensable ideology.

“Liberalism” is a protean word, and any historical account of it will be open to one or another objection. But Moyn, a Yale intellectual historian, is something of an expert at intellectual genealogy. Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World followed that (also protean) idea throughout the twentieth century, as it developed in a subtle counterpoint with demands for economic equality, their proponents often competing within international institutions, foundations, and academia for funding, endorsements, and staff. Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War had a similarly dialectical structure, tracing over a century and a half how the ideal of humanitarian war gradually displaced the movement—once very strong—to outlaw all wars. The United States in particular, Moyn showed, has in recent decades gone all in on humanitarian war while firmly disavowing any constraint on its sovereign right to wage war whenever and wherever it sees fit, leaving us engaged in “deterritorialized and endless war” carried on with ultra-precise weapons.

Liberalism Against Itself describes liberalism’s decline from the expansive and optimistic creed birthed by the critical spirit of the Enlightenment and the confident individualism of the Romantic era to a cramped and defensive mindset that saw dangers and enemies everywhere. The Cold War liberals were traumatized by Nazism and Stalinism, to the point that most of the vocabulary of political hope—“liberation,” “revolution,” “emancipation,” “utopia”—became unavailable. And they went even further: Highly accomplished scholars (those whom Moyn discusses, at any rate), they pursued to their historical source the ideas they believed to be the roots of the twentieth-century catastrophe.

The troop Moyn has chosen to study is an illustrious one. They are six in all: three intellectual celebrities—Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, and Karl Popper; two others only slightly less well-known: Gertrude Himmelfarb, a prolific historian, and Judith Shklar, a political theorist; and a surprising and adventurous choice, Lionel Trilling. (He mostly leaves out popular but all-too-familiar figures like Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) There were differences among them, but they all agreed that the rationalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment bred a fateful overconfidence with terrible consequences, first in the French Revolution and then in the Communist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Cold War liberals also reinterpreted Romanticism as an episode in the history of political thought—not as an inspiration for creative agency and the higher life, as earlier liberals like Alexis de Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant had conceived it, but as a scapegoat and a caution. Prometheanism, with its excessive straining after originality, was, they believed, an ever-present temptation.

Rousseau and Hegel figured prominently in what Moyn calls the Cold War liberals’ “anticanon.” Rousseau, by speaking of different wills and different liberties, had, according to Berlin, introduced into the world the “grotesque and hair-raising paradox whereby a man is told that to be deprived of his liberty is to be given a higher, nobler liberty”—a familiar Communist gambit. Rousseau also exalted feeling and imagination to parity with reason—in effect, according to the Cold War liberals, preaching irrationalism. Hegel’s many offenses included believing that history was a progress, arguing that the state was an important agency of human betterment, and not being a commonsensical English empiricist. Rousseau and Hegel’s work, together with that of the eighteenth-century philosophes and Karl Marx, epitomized the pernicious doctrines that had led the modern world astray: progressivism and perfectionism.

The concept of progress was undoubtedly the largest source of the Cold War liberals’ grievance. Their redefined liberalism was no longer sanguine about the future; it was, on the contrary, deeply anxious. Of course, even conservatives acknowledge progress: in science, technology, and medicine. It is claims about moral or political progress that make conservatives see red, and especially claims about inevitable progress, which allow rulers to rationalize oppression and deprivation. But such claims are not so common as the emphatic warnings from Cold War liberals might suggest. The Marquis de Condorcet thought that universal brotherhood would eventually reign. Hegel thought that Reason would eventually reign. Marx thought that workers would eventually reign. Each of them had a theory about how his predictions might come true. But they were not dogmatic inevitabilists like, say, Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, and Herbert Spencer. The others, though condemned as proto-totalitarians by the Cold War liberals, were not saying much more than Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” But as with many ideas and terms appropriated by the Bolsheviks, “progress” became deeply and enduringly suspect.

“Perfectionism” grew out of Romanticism, with its emphasis on the uniqueness and creative power of individuals. Liberalism before the world wars, Moyn writes, was the “project of securing the conditions—including the economic conditions—for the enjoyment of creative freedom” by everyone. After World War I and the subsequent Great Disillusionment, this emancipatory project, like most projects, seemed beside the point. After the Second, it seemed positively dangerous—a program waiting for a demagogue to take it up. The Cold War liberals preached the opposite doctrine—Original Sin; that is, the gloomy conviction that a primal defect in human nature set strict limits to human possibilities—with a vengeance. A little like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, they thought that ordinary people could not bear much reality or happiness and needed firm, vigilant political guidance. They also recommended religion to the public, though none of them was religious.

Harvard political theorist Judith Shklar is the book’s muse. It was she who held out longest against the Cold War liberals’ cardinal mistake: the wholesale rejection of the Enlightenment. She also criticized one of the most unfortunate aspects of Cold War liberalism: its near-exclusive preference for negative liberty. Shklar’s friend Isaiah Berlin was, like her, friendlier to the Enlightenment and Romanticism than most Cold War liberals. But his very influential foray into political theory, Two Concepts of Liberty, enshrined a distinction between negative liberty—freedom from—and positive liberty—freedom to. In Shklar’s view, this maimed traditional liberalism, which had cared as much about “moral and intellectual self-fulfillment” as about “absence of restraint.” “One place to begin,” Moyn writes, “for those who hope to transcend the catastrophic legacies of Cold War liberalism, is with Shklar’s criticism of it.”

Gertrude Himmelfarb was on the margins of Cold War liberalism, more exclusively an academic and less of a polemicist than the others. (And married to Irving Kristol, the co-founder of neoconservatism, she had a foot in another camp as well.) She found in English intellectual history, and particularly in the rediscovery of one of its great figures, Lord Acton, an antidote for the French and German toxins that had infected modern political theory. Acton was a historian of freedom, a champion of absolute, unconditional moral law, and a bulwark against progressivism (“Progress, the religion of those who have none,” he pronounced) and relativism.

Hannah Arendt was, Moyn writes, a “fellow traveler” of the Cold War liberals. From different philosophical premises, she arrived at similarly pessimistic conclusions. The Roman Republic was Arendt’s ideal, and nothing in modern times equaled its balance of order and freedom except the American colonial period. She despised Rousseau and Hegel, the French and Russian Revolutions, as cordially as the Cold War liberals did. She also shared their distaste for the postcolonial states, many of which appropriated Western rhetoric about revolution and liberation to cover up tyranny and corruption. Arendt’s and the Cold Warriors’ caustic skepticism about the possibility of non-Western freedom was partly hard-eyed realism and partly, Moyn suggests, “neo-imperial and racist entanglements.”

Lionel Trilling, the most accomplished literary critic of the age, is an unexpected presence in this book, and an illuminating one. Trilling had a horror of being “placed” in one ideological camp or another, but Moyn makes a convincing case that he shared an outlook, or at any rate a temperament, with the Cold War liberals. Trilling was essential in introducing American Cold War liberals to Freud—not the critic of sexual repression but the stern moralist, preaching renunciation and self-control. “The Cold War liberals,” Moyn writes, “canonized Freud for the self-oppression he recommended: strict self-control for the sake of avoiding misdirected enthusiasm and monitoring disorderly passion.” This self-control—he often called it “responsibility”—was Trilling’s lifelong teaching. For him as for the other Cold War liberals, enthusiasm and passion were guilty until proven innocent.

If there was one word that Cold War liberals almost invariably used to characterize their outlook, it was “tragic.” That Reason, the purported agent of human liberation, had instead spawned concentration camps; that the United States, with the noblest of intentions, wound up again and again allied with unsavory right-wing dictatorships; that this peace-loving nation should find itself forced to drop so many and such lethal bombs on so many noncombatants throughout the twentieth century—bombing them into “a nobler, higher liberty,” as Berlin might have said (but didn’t): These regrettable facts fell into the category of “tragic irony.” Those who could not perceive the tragedy—leftists, usually—were derided as naïve or doctrinaire.

“Tragic irony” was not entirely a dodge. It was meant to counter a style of thinking that one might call Jacobin: a tendency to think about politics schematically, with too much reliance on abstractions and too much readiness to assign people to categories (like class), which thereafter determine their treatment, and too little allowance for contingency and individuality. There was also a tendency in this style of thought to appeal to historical inevitability, usually to justify sacrifices by the masses. The Bolsheviks had done these things to a fault—a monstrous fault—and the Cold War liberals’ revulsion was justified. Not justified, however, was their implacable condemnation of any and all radical criticism or action.

Moyn’s critique of the Cold War liberals is acute and judicious. But they seem to me liable to another, even more damaging critique: The Cold War liberals simply had no idea what the Cold War was about. They believed it was a mortal combat between democracy and totalitarianism, between freedom and slavery, and most elementally, between good and evil. But it was nothing of the sort.

The actual Cold War, rather than the grand clash of metaphysical systems imagined by the Cold War liberals, was a tacit, mutually advantageous arrangement between the superpowers to represent each other as a supreme threat, a tireless aggressor, an evil empire, in order to induce their own populations to bear the moral and material costs of imposing their different forms of hegemony in their respective domains. U.S. support for numerous repressive and violent regimes engaged in crushing restive populations could hardly be justified to the American public honestly, i.e., as support for a favorable investment climate. So Americans were instructed that the international Communist crusade was threatening yet another helpless country vital to the defense of the Free World—no matter what that country’s population might want. The Soviets, likewise, portrayed their interventions in Eastern Europe as the defense of socialism against cunning and unscrupulous agents of capitalist counterrevolution, when what was really at stake was, in the first place, to prevent the Russian population from becoming infected with democratic ideas from the satellite countries, and in the second place, to secure a buffer against invasion from the West, which had nearly destroyed Russia three times in a century and a half. (Then as now, NATO made the Russians extremely nervous.)

The Cold War liberals were useful idiots. “Useful idiot” is a term of art. Of course, the Cold War liberals were not idiots, any more than Brecht, Sartre, and Lukács were idiots. But just as Brecht, Sartre, and Lukács managed not to notice the tyranny and mendacity of the Soviet Union in order to remain useful to the international proletarian revolution, the Cold War liberals managed not to notice the United States’s consistent support of brutal and undemocratic but business-friendly Third World regimes. The roster of those regimes is very long—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Congo, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Uruguay—and the toll of suffering on the subject populations very great. History will judge both groups of useful idiots harshly.

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George Scialabba is a book critic in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His latest book, Only a Voice: Essays, has just been published by Verso.

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