Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times, Samuel Moyn (Yale University Press, 240 pp., $27.50)

The battle over liberalism is also the battle over the word “liberalism.” In recent years, this semantic and substantive debate has set two main camps in opposition. The first, championed by the post-liberal Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, sees liberalism as a never-ending search for individual autonomy. On this view, liberals, by continually maximizing individual choices, dismember the structure of civil society and erode the bonds from which we derive our sense of identity. Hiding behind the mask of tolerance, liberalism attacks faith, nationhood, citizenship, culture, and custom—until nothing remains to obstruct its culmination in license. In desperate need of higher callings, atomized individuals succumb to nihilism as modern societies head toward collapse. Such is the post-liberal story.

On the other side, defenders like Francis Fukuyama portray liberalism as a moderate, if often frustrating, means of remedying human ills. Balancing communal harmony with individual sovereignty, liberal societies enable citizens to choose their own path. Liberalism might not itself provide meaning or purpose, but it does guarantee a basic set of rights, liberties, and protections from state power. As the twentieth century grimly taught us, the preservation of human freedom requires the rejection of utopianism. Critics of liberalism build castles in the sky; liberals themselves accept the fallen nature of man, the necessary imperfections of politics, and the need for prudence in statesmanship. Liberalism, this view holds, cannot promise happiness or heroism, but it can deliver peace and prosperity. This picture might seem unglamorous, particularly for young minds in search of excitement or deeper meaning, but it’s the best for which we moderns can hope.

In Liberalism Against Itself, Samuel Moyn, an intellectual historian and professor at Yale Law School, challenges the terms of this divide. If critics of liberalism misrepresent its content, so do liberalism’s supposed defenders. Once upon a time, liberals spoke the language of self-creation. They did not seek mere neutrality toward ways of life; nor did they want to reduce politics to the provision of basic rights and liberties. The architects of the Enlightenment wrote boldly, envisioning the triumph of reason over superstition, of progress over stagnation, of individual expression over collective censorship. They did not desire simply to live next to their fellow man in peace. Theirs was a promethean call to empower human creativity, vanquish prejudices, and shield the most vulnerable from all tyrannies, public or private. How did this initial vision get lost in the history of the liberal idea? How did another vision, less ambitious, even cautious, come to replace it? Why has liberalism undermined itself from within? To answer these questions, Moyn turns to a period (the Cold War) and to certain thinkers from that time who personify the brand of liberalism that he blames for our current ills.

Elegant and provocative, Moyn’s analysis consists of six chapters, each dedicated to a major twentieth-century intellectual: Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hannah Arendt, and Lionel Trilling. Though distinct, the six chapters coalesce into a whole as the book progresses. Portrait after portrait, principle after principle, Moyn seeks to show how Cold War liberalism erodes the intellectual and political tradition that it purports to defend.

Moyn’s history is one of betrayal: each portrait becomes an excuse to contrast true liberalism, radiant and vital, with Cold War liberalism, which he chastises for its capitulation to conservative pessimism. Liberals once recognized the perils of private tyranny, he argues, but the Cold War converted them to market fundamentalism; liberals once fought for the superiority of reason over revelation, but the Cold War tamed their anti-clerical zeal; and so on. Nevertheless, Moyn’s account does not indulge in nostalgia. He does not seek some return to a previous liberalism but wants to imagine what the future of liberalism could—or should—entail.  

The book begins with an intellectual biography of Judith Shklar, a brilliant but often-neglected political theorist, who began her career as an ardent critic of Cold War liberalism and then became one its most sophisticated defenders. In her first book, After Utopia, she accused her contemporaries of abandoning the Enlightenment’s commitment to emancipation and self-creation. Liberals, she claimed, obsessed over the perils of illiberalism without providing their own vision of the good; they were, to quote Sheldon Wolin, “more apt to dwell on the numerous threats of pain in the world than on the abundant possibilities of happiness.” Later, however, Shklar turned to the very brand of liberalism that she once criticized. In her best-known essay, “The Liberalism of Fear,” she admitted that the case for liberalism rests, at bottom, on a fear of worse alternatives. First as a critic, then as a defender, Shklar is the thinker of Cold War liberalism. For Moyn, she acts as a “guide,” a Virgil to his Dante, whom he “follow[s] across a hellish landscape in the hope that purgatory—if not heaven—lies beyond.”

Less sympathetic but more trenchant, Moyn’s chapters on Popper, Himmelfarb, Arendt, and Trilling explore the thought of each thinker, excavating their contributions and their flaws, and exposing what he sees as their nefarious influence on our thought. He is particularly critical of Popper, though Popper does not need Moyn to embarrass him when his own words suffice. Best known for his work in the philosophy of science, Popper’s political essays are so egregious that one wonders, by the end of the chapter, which of his misreadings of Hegel or Marx lands widest of the mark.

The chapter on Isaiah Berlin leaves more room for disagreement, however. Moyn begins by observing, rightly, that Berlin’s love of romanticism sets him apart from other Cold War liberals. Where Arendt, say, views with suspicion the romantic exhortation to treat life, if not politics, as a work of art, Berlin not only accepts but embraces it. In this respect, Berlin does not resemble Moyn’s Cold War liberal, for he does have a positive vision of emancipation, and this vision does involve self-creation. Still, Moyn contends, Berlin never wrestled with the contradictions between his romantic sensibility and his politics. In Moyn’s words, Berlin “never provided a full accounting of just how profoundly a Romantic liberalism of self-creation was obviated as much as protected by his own Cold War and libertarian rendition of liberal politics.”

Yet to read Berlin as a liberal who capitulated to romantic reactionaries is to read him backward. In his disposition, his aesthetic taste, his literary preferences, his conduct, and his spirit, Berlin was above all a romantic. As Moyn admits, while much of the literature on Berlin obsesses over his Cold War essays, most of his corpus focuses on romanticism and the Counter-Enlightenment. The story of Berlin, then, is the story of a romantic who capitulates to liberalism, not the reverse.

Why, then, did he capitulate? Berlin himself offered clear reasons. In the romantic tradition, Berlin finds “passionate champions of variety,” opponents of “uniformity as the enemy of life,” sensitive souls who understand that “all rules or precepts are deadly” and that “nature is a wild dance.” More than anything, this concern for the “wild dance” of life leads Berlin to abhor managerialism. In one of his most memorable paragraphs, he writes: “Systems are mere prisons of the spirit, and they lead not only to distortion in the sphere of knowledge, but to the erection of monstrous bureaucratic machines, built in accordance with the rules that ignore the teeming variety of the living world, the untidy and asymmetrical lives of men, and crush them into conformity for the sake of some ideological chimera unrelated to the union of spirit and flesh that constitutes the real world.”

At bottom, Berlin’s anti-utopian politics come from his belief that an unambitious state best respects and protects the mosaic of cultures, individualities, and tongues that constitute human life. A more ambitious state, whether liberal or not, would erect bureaucracies that would, deliberately or not, crush creativity and impose uniformity. Moyn is free to disagree with this argument; I find it incomplete myself, given that bureaucratic conformity plagues private and public institutions alike. But to claim that Berlin “never provided a full accounting” of the relationship between his romantic disposition and his politics is unfair.

Moyn’s mistreatment of Berlin helps expose his book’s weaknesses. First, as with other assessments of Cold War liberalism, Moyn lumps together thinkers with wildly different philosophies. Granted, Berlin does share practical prescriptions with Popper; both wanted a constrained state, focused on the provision of basic rights. But Berlin’s outlook on the purpose of existence—on beauty, on culture, on the arts, on nature, on literature, and on history, to cite a few—is far richer. In every respect that is not “political” in the lowest sense of the term, Berlin is closer to Herder, Wordsworth, and other romantics than he is to Popper, who personifies the lifeless rationalism against which Berlin spent his career fighting. In fact, Berlin could act as a bridge between Moyn and disenchanted moderates who might find the romantic tradition appealing but are not yet prepared to cross the Rubicon. Moyn could easily conserve almost all of Berlin’s principles but argue, on empirical grounds, that his more radical liberalism serves Berlinian ends more effectively than Berlinian means. Yet he does not.

Like Moyn, Berlin dreamt of a romantic world in which individuals treat their life as a work of art, while vibrant communities live side by side, each an expression of wonder. Like Moyn, Berlin preferred the liberalism of the explorer to the liberalism of the administrator. Like Moyn, Berlin wanted poetry to become a common language, and warned against the supremacy of the social sciences. And Berlin and Moyn both hate the managerial revolution and detest all attempts to impose uniformity on cultures that find their beauty in irregularity. These were Berlin’s most fundamental aspirations—not his love of limited government. Mistaking the means for the ends, Moyn misses the chance to turn his enemy into a friend. In this regard, his reading is too political.

It’s also too historical. The very term “Cold War liberalism” historicizes certain ideas beyond measure, as if the world had to wait for historian Gertrude Himmelfarb to try to reconcile liberalism and Christianity. (Tocqueville did it just fine, centuries prior, without the Soviets at the door.) Moyn is so determined to set the heartless Cold War in opposition to the muscular Enlightenment that he sometimes seems to forget that Montesquieu, with his defense of commercial republics, and Locke, with his defense of property, and Hume, with his defense of tradition, and Hobbes, with his defense of a rudimentary state, are every bit as representative of the liberal tradition as the more romantic Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Twentieth-century liberals did betray some of their liberal principles, as Moyn emphasizes again and again. But the magnitude of the shift might not prove as dramatic as he would have his readers believe. To the extent that liberalism betrayed itself, the seeds were there long before the twentieth century.

Nonetheless, these important points of contention should not distract from Moyn’s accomplishment. He has written what may be the most comprehensive appraisal of Cold War liberalism to date. Some will quarrel with his interpretations. Many will disagree with his normative prescriptions. But all, right or left, cold warriors or not, will learn from his contribution to the debate between liberalism and its critics. To liberals, Moyn offers a path to renewal; to critics, he presents a worthy opponent, who refuses to hide behind neutrality or procedure. Liberalism Against Itself deserves to be read widely.

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