Liberalism in Defense of Freedom
Here’s what’s missing from Samuel Moyn’s indictment of Cold War liberals.
Liberalism Against Itself
Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times
by Samuel Moyn
Yale, 229 pp., $27.50
WHEN THE SOVIET UNION COLLAPSED, conservatives claimed credit for relegating communism to the ashbin of history. Ronald Reagan had an honored place in the pantheon of Cold Warriors for ending the policy of détente that accommodated rather than challenged the Soviet empire. In a crucial period when the Soviets were on the march, Reagan initiated (to borrow from Winston Churchill) “a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor” in U.S. foreign policy. The revival of American strength and conviction demonstrated the futility of Moscow’s strategic competition with the free world and hastened the demise of the Soviet system.
Some of the conservatives who united behind Reagan in celebrating the Cold War triumph were European-style conservatives who hated communism mostly because it was revolutionary, atheistic, and foreign. Others were conservative-liberals or liberal-conservatives or neoconservatives—all various names for those who share the views of Enlightenment liberalism but with some degree of Burkean moderation and a particular belief in the use of armed diplomacy.
By contrast with both of these groups, left-liberals in America had a more ambiguous response to the end of the Cold War because they had all but forsaken the mantle of anti-communism. After the Vietnam War, the left broadly lost confidence in the American cause and eschewed any further sacrifice of blood or treasure in the long twilight struggle. As H.W. Brands writes in The Strange Death of American Liberalism, by the time the Berlin Wall came down, “those rare liberals who were willing or able to remember that the American Cold War had originally been a liberal enterprise might have trotted out such early Cold War heroes as Harry Truman and Dean Acheson if the conservatives hadn’t long since claimed them as their own.” These are the ironies of history that today’s progressives seldom recognize.
A prominent example of this breed is Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale. In Liberalism Against Itself, Moyn makes the case that postwar liberalism has been subject to sharply diminishing returns. But the proximate cause of this breakdown is not liberalism’s pursuit of a rigidly egalitarian social order or its dalliance with “Millennial socialism” or even its growing obsession with identity politics. In Moyn’s estimation, the culprit is militant anti-communism, which he presents as having corrupted not only U.S. foreign policy but liberalism itself.
A reprise of the Carlyle lectures that Moyn delivered at Oxford on the canon of liberalism, Liberalism Against Itself argues that the left’s passive and insular post-Vietnam orientation would have had a civilizing effect on American politics had it only gone further. Trace elements of liberal internationalism persist on the Democratic left in a way that deprives liberalism of its “emancipatory and futuristic” qualities. For Moyn, the rot set in when a group of postwar intellectuals—the “Cold War liberals”—endeavored to come to grips with a world in disarray and ended up disowning Enlightenment principles and retreating from progressive goals. Thus, in the ostensible heyday of liberalism, when its partisans possessed the commanding heights of American society, liberalism abandoned its core aspirations.
What arouses Moyn’s wrath about Cold War liberalism is its purported “failure to defend the welfare state,” a failure that he regards as a natural consequence of its acceptance of Burkean arguments against the French Revolution and the radical tradition of the philosophes. Published in an hour of popular disaffection with the liberal order (or, as so many of its critics from the left dub it, the “neoliberal order”), Liberalism Against Itself is a plea for more romantic theory that dispenses with the “limits” observed by the “deviant” Cold War liberalism. The authentic liberal tradition, by Moyn’s telling, adheres to the optimism of the Enlightenment and champions “free and equal self-creation” shorn of the vestiges of religion and nation. Only after leaving the Cold War behind, and discarding the tragic pragmatism of its American architects, can the left recover an older idea of “perfectionism and progressivism.”
LIBERALISM AGAINST ITSELF IS ORGANIZED as a series of profiles of major thinkers who upheld and refined the philosophy of liberalism at a time when it was under ferocious attack—Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lionel Trilling, Hannah Arendt, and Judith Shklar. The evident purpose of these vignettes is to cast doubt on the intellectuals who shaped (or disfigured, depending on your opinion) the public understanding of the liberal enterprise. But this ambitious effort fails to cohere since it proceeds from a certain predisposition that is an adopted ideological orientation, not a conclusion based on evidence and argument. The author gives the vague but definite impression that his approach is (as Karl Jaspers said of Marx’s writings) “one of vindication, not investigation.”
As a result, these profiles tend to be overdrawn and display little feel for his protagonists’ subtleties of thought. Moyn notes that the ranks of Cold War liberals were filled with exiles and refugees, including a staggering number of Jews, but other works of intellectual history and philosophy—from Barry Gewen’s biography of Henry Kissinger to Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind—shed more light on this cohort. Moyn fails to offer a convincing rebuttal to his subjects’ decisions to stand athwart the fashionable historicism of the age that sought to dispense with the old foundations of political philosophy—both Athens and Jerusalem—and conceive of human beings as individually self-creating rather than bound by certain limits.
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For Moyn, the common thread uniting these figures, beyond their status as Jews, is their belief in the importance of reevaluating and reconfiguring the Enlightenment—what Moyn contemptuously refers to as “evicting the Enlightenment from liberalism.” They held that “belief in an emancipated life was proto-totalitarian in effect if not in intent” and “treat[ed] the Enlightenment as a rationalist utopia that precipitated terror and the emancipatory state as a euphemism for terror’s reign.” Indeed, among them, “it was now common to say that reason itself bred totalitarianism.”
All this is vastly overstated. Certain sectors of the right—especially those, inconveniently for Moyn’s case, explicitly hostile to liberalism—have undoubtedly held the Enlightenment in suspicion, seeing it as merely a fig leaf for relativism, atheism, and nihilism. Moyn’s work gives no hint of the existence of multiple strands of the Enlightenment with varying traditions—such as the British Enlightenment, in which Adam Smith and Edmund Burke figured prominently, elevating sentiments above abstract reason in their descriptions of human nature.
The British Enlightenment’s sober reckoning with the complexity of the individual and society gave it a leg up on the Jacobin tradition with its tremendous faith in the power of human reason. On Moyn’s telling, however, essentially all critics of the French Revolution are perverse reactionaries, even though many classical liberals from Benjamin Constant to Tocqueville judged the end of the ancien régime to have been welcome or at least unavoidable, but not the Terror that followed. The act of bowing to the French Encyclopédie, with its vision of reforming the world based on reason alone, as the sole legitimate version of Enlightenment thinking is a misreading of both history and philosophy that fatally undermines Moyn’s account of liberalism. It also fails to acknowledge how the path of perfectionism can degenerate, in our fallen world, into tyranny.
MOYN’S PREOCCUPATION WITH Cold War intellectuals—to the exclusion of Cold War policymakers—is telling. It presumes to remove the role of power from considerations of principle, as if U.S. grand strategy during the Cold War would have fared better based on reading Hannah Arendt and George Orwell a little less and Jean-Jacques Rousseau a little more. Moyn laments that what had once been a philosophical and political project for the emancipation of humanity had, in the twentieth century, become a chastened ideology pulsing with anxiety about the enemies of civilization. In this view, the Cold War imparted an irrational fear of dictatorship and an equally irrational acceptance of power to liberal thinking that has outlived the evil empire.
In this context it’s worth noting that during Donald Trump’s first months as president, Moyn castigated the American (especially liberal American) tendency toward “tyrannophobia, the belief that the overwhelmingly important political issue is the threat to our liberal freedoms and institutions,” arguing that Trump posed no serious threat to democracy. “The most frightening threats to ordinary politics in the United States,” Moyn wrote in 2017, “are empty or easily contained. . . . there is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed.” Back then, he sensed that liberal hysteria about a “crisis of democracy” was, in fact, a crisis of unreformed liberalism. Of course, the question of Trump’s menace to the constitutional order had next to nothing to do with the finer points of liberal doctrine. And those who took the measure of the Republican standard-bearer as a dangerous demagogue were vindicated after Trump tried to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. But Moyn, undeterred by what Thomas Henry Huxley called “the tragedy of a fact killing a theory,” repeats in his book that debunked assessment: Donald Trump’s election elicited among Americans a recommitment to freedom “comparable” to Cold War liberalism and “prompted similar warnings about the collapse of freedom into tyranny and democracy into ‘populism.’”
He continues: “For four years under Trump, observers foretold political apocalypse . . . [and] forgot Franklin Roosevelt’s caustic remark that ‘too many of those who prate about saving democracy are really interested in saving things as they were.’” And regarding January 6th: “The riot on January 6, 2021, that interfered with the Congress’s ratification of his successor’s electoral win frightened observers into thinking the end was nigh. Whether or not that was true, the sense of fragility that had haunted Cold War liberals . . . became existentially compelling to millions.”
Moyn deserves at least some credit for admitting, contra his prediction in 2017, that Trump and his movement might pose a threat to democracy, although his elusive formulation that millions of others see the threat implies that, against all facts, he doesn’t agree.
MOYN ASSAILS COLD WAR LIBERALISM’S claims to benevolence. “Cold War liberalism,” he writes in the introduction, “left the liberal tradition unrecognizable and in ruins.” The bleak circumstances of the Cold War certainly transformed liberalism into what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called a “fighting faith.” After a bitter internecine struggle, mainstream liberals concluded that their quarrel with Stalinism was a difference of kind rather than degree, as former Vice President Henry Wallace had implied when he proposed an alliance with Communists in the fight for domestic and international progress. To the chagrin of the extreme left, mid-twentieth-century liberalism was fundamentally reshaped, as Schlesinger put it in The Vital Center, “by the exposure of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man. The consequence of this historical re-education has been an unconditional rejection of totalitarianism.”
Instead of pondering the moral and political deficiencies of pre-Cold War liberalism that left its votaries unable or unwilling to confront an enormous totalitarian threat—and in some ignominious cases to excuse or identify with it—Moyn prefers to chastise the new “liberalism of fear” (in Judith Shklar’s approving phrase) for weakening the progressive “commitment to the highest life.” As it took up the task of checking Communist aggression and subversion from the Fulda Gap to the Korean peninsula, liberalism—in the corridors of academia and the corridors of power—ceased to be “the agent of an unfolding plan to produce a better and more fulfilled humanity.”
This simplistic narrative about the liberal decision to choose guns over butter is not only misleading on its own terms, but it neglects the drama of the fracture that occurred in the American left in the first decade of the Cold War. Moyn evades the crux of the superpower confrontation. He argues that liberal opinion in the Cold War epoch gave way to hysteria, and he indicts it for “overreact[ing] to the threat the Soviets posed.” But he gives no justification for this bold—indeed breathtaking—interpretation. If you join with Moyn in believing that the threat posed by Soviet Union was overblown, you are more likely to find his argument persuasive—but he offers no reasons in support of that belief, and there are ample reasons not to believe it.
Despite heaping fantastic abuse on the Cold War liberals, there’s little sign that Moyn gives a second thought—or even a first thought—to the harrowing circumstances that produced this crucial evolution in his ideological rivals. He objects to the erstwhile liberal who, haunted by “a sense of fragility” about the security of liberty, narrowed his or her vision of what was feasible, or even desirable, in human society. Easy for him to say. Moyn, resting on the fallacy of inevitability, deems the convictions and aspirations of the postwar generation “misplaced” given that, as we now know, the Cold War never turned fully hot. In reality, after the Second World War, a labile admixture of optimism, caution, and what Tocqueville called “salutary fear”—especially among American Cold War liberals—prevented a third world war (so far).
The rise of totalitarianism and the subjugation of vast expanses of the Eurasian landmass by brigand empires were the key facts of the age. After the totalitarian tentacles of the Communist empire began to spread, democracy itself was on the line, and with it, all that liberal culture held dear. The Americans of the right—or indeed of the “vital center”—who assimilated this point, often with great suffering and sacrifice, never lost sight of it.
At the end of 1945, large tracts of Europe and Asia lay in ruins while the British Empire, which had long ensured a modicum of world order, was bloodied and bankrupt. In this frightening nuclear era, America was obliged to look after its own interests—something it had failed to do in the interwar years—and this time without the benefit of robust allies. To influential liberals like Harry Truman, the United States had become “one of the most powerful forces for good on earth,” and the task now was to “keep it so” and to “lead the world to peace and prosperity.” This meant making the world safe for democracy, building an open economic system, and suppressing (or at least limiting) renascent geopolitical competition. Such an expansive mission necessitated a permanent military presence on distant frontiers and on the high seas. Truman, acutely aware of the daunting implications of this revolution in world affairs, deemed it “the most terrible responsibility that any nation ever faced.”
Sometimes miscast as a knee-jerk reaction to the Soviet drive for domination, America’s strategy to rebuild a liberal order emanated from a reading of the recent past, not only a fear of the coming future. If the American way of life was put at risk by hostile and expansionist hegemons—an object lesson of the rise of Nazi and Japanese hegemony—it would not suffice for the United States to “sit in the parlor with a loaded shotgun, waiting,” as Dean Acheson remarked. The specter of a world under Soviet domination concentrated the mind and underscored the danger of any American retreat from world affairs. NSC 68, the famous statement of national security strategy that Truman commissioned in 1950, which fervently called for facing down Soviet totalitarianism, insisted that “a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.” (The memo was originally intended as an instrument of public relations, to pull Americans out of their postwar complacency at a time when Acheson saw it necessary to use arguments that were “clearer than truth.”) Although self-styled realists of the day howled, the prevailing liberal view took the measure of the aggressive designs of Soviet communism and knew that they could be effectively thwarted only by deploying “counterforce” and building up “situations of strength” around the globe.
The decision of American liberalism to confront Soviet totalitarianism, Moyn writes, “unnecessarily killed millions.” Moyn does not attempt to explain this extravagant judgment; he simply asserts it. He likewise fails to suggest an alternative course that would have spared millions. The reader is left to work out on his own how the United States ought to have responded to the Communist subversion of Greece and Turkey, or the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948–49, or the Soviet-backed North Korean invasion of South Korea.
For generations, useful idiots in the West have believed the Cold War was an artificial division born of mistrust rather than, as it was, an irrepressible conflict reflecting irrevocable political differences. Moyn seems to view liberal enmity toward the Soviet Union with contempt. He implies that one of his subjects, the liberal philosopher Judith Shklar, was wrong to decide she could not accept cruelty in the service of some utopian goal, condemning “any notion that the furtherance of a better future functioned as a justification for immorality now.” If only Cold War liberals could see that you needed to break a few eggs to make an omelet.
Moyn also does not attempt to substantiate his shopworn insistence that fascism and communism were incompatible ideologies. A bevy of distinguished historians have established that the ideological division between these twin systems—Stalin’s obsession with class versus Hitler’s obsession with race—was a distinction without much difference. For this reason, Sovietologist Richard Pipes claimed that “Bolshevism and fascism were heresies of socialism.” But Moyn ignores these arguments entirely. As a result, he is blind to the fact that in their internal character as well as their external conduct—one-party and one-leader rule, ubiquitous propaganda, secret police, concentration camps, repression of ethnic and religious minorities, systematized slaughter of enemies real and imagined—these states bore more than a passing resemblance to each other. It certainly allowed a level of harmony between Stalin and Hitler that culminated in a formal military pact, which, when it was broken, left the (famously unsentimental) Red Tsar in tears.
SINCE MOYN IS FLINTY in his treatment of foreign policy, his case for the decline of liberalism relies heavily on its record in domestic politics. In Moyn’s telling, Cold War liberals advocated a “spare commitment to freedom from state excess,” and he ultimately accuses his targets of advocating “Cold War libertarianism”—a description that empties libertarian ideology of all meaning. In fact, liberal anti-Communists fought passionately for civil rights, organized labor, and a larger welfare state, albeit without seeking to destroy the free market or give up on the principles of liberal democracy in the process. Under liberal stewardship, the scale and scope of the federal Leviathan grew immensely, even if not to the extent of a European-style social democracy.
It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who initially demanded the renovation of liberalism to diminish the specter of tyranny during the Great Depression. As he would later put it, the interwar years demonstrated that “people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” A renewal of liberalism was needed. This is why, even before D-Day, with his eye already the postwar world and the shape of postwar America, Roosevelt called for a “Second Bill of Rights” guaranteeing individual dignity and social mobility. This was, he believed, not only morally sound but also a prudent measure to avert social turmoil and political radicalism.
In Moyn’s narrative, the Democratic coalition swiftly betrayed Roosevelt’s program, lulled by the war party in Washington. Just as a radiant future was coming into view, Moyn wrote in the New York Times, “Cold War liberalism emerged as a rejection of the optimism that flourished before the mid-20th century’s crises.” (The rise of radical, millenarian political philosophies was a prime cause of those crises.) Moyn’s historical reading echoes the prevailing view among a certain segment of the left that the only thing that prevented American liberalism from reaching the sunlit uplands of history was Harry Truman’s establishment of the national security state and Lyndon Johnson’s choice to escalate the war in Vietnam. Moyn recapitulates this conventional wisdom by arguing that “the civil rights revolution and the ‘great society’ came together with the Vietnam War, which destroyed the conditions for opening a new era of liberalism that might have transcended Cold War limits.”
This isn’t merely uncharitable to Roosevelt’s Democratic successors; it’s a slander. To begin with, it was FDR who elevated Truman (Moyn’s bête noir) after evicting Henry Wallace, who was then warm to the Soviet Union, from the Democratic ticket in 1944. Despite welcoming Stalin’s services as a wartime ally, Roosevelt came to distrust him, and feared the influence of Soviet power after the war. Both the Atlantic Charter and Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms reflected his belief that an environment of global freedom was essential to American security. On succeeding to the presidency, Truman proposed universal health care on the model of the British National Health Service, and later Johnson secured Medicare (for the elderly) and Medicaid (for the indigent). The liberal spirit of reform was no less evident in the campaign for civil rights. Truman desegregated the armed forces, lobbied the Supreme Court to end segregation, and put pressure on the Dixiecrats in his own party. Johnson sidelined that faction entirely by dismantling segregation.
In yet another irony of history, it was fear of communism that helped these social and economic reforms gain traction, largely based on the belief that the cause of democracy would falter if it was forced to rely solely on ideological principle or military might. If the captive nations of the Soviet bloc appeared to enjoy a higher quality of life than the democratic West, none would be safe from the allure of revolutionary socialism. John F. Kennedy explained in 1963: “Today, we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only.”
Nor was the expenditure on defense in the Cold War exorbitant. As the British historian Timothy Garton Ash—whom Moyn fingers as an heir to the Cold War liberal legacy—chronicled in his book Free World, U.S. defense spending in the postwar era has never devoured the nation’s resources at the expense of the welfare state or social programs:
The U.S. budget distinguishes between national defense and human resources. . . . In 1945, the ratio was 89 percent on defense to 2 percent on social spending (the balance is accounted for by other budget categories). As late as 1970, America spent more on national defense than on social welfare. By the end of the Cold War, however, the ratio was roughly 24:49 (defense: social), and in the last year of the Clinton administration it had fallen to 16:62. All the huge hikes in military spending under George W. Bush pushed that up to only an estimated 20:65 in 2004.
MOYN IS A CANNY STUDENT of political philosophy, but there are lapses in Liberalism Against Itself that leave the attentive reader perplexed. For instance, Moyn finds it “strange” that after being labeled by its enemies, Cold War liberalism is now usually written about by its friends. But how is this remotely strange? For one thing, there is a hallowed tradition—forged by Tories and suffragettes and Whigs and Methodists and neoconservatives—of adopting an insult as a moniker. For another, Cold War liberals proudly wear the label bestowed upon them because their doctrine worked. Liberals’ indispensable contribution to victory in the Cold War (pursued with varying degrees of resolution but with ultimate success) redounded to the benefit of world peace, political liberty, and economic prosperity. What’s truly strange is that the “peace movement,” which received so much deserved obloquy for believing Soviet totalitarianism should have been accommodated as it attempted to conquer and subjugate the world, still does not betray a blush of shame.
Liberalism Against Itself, it’s of interest to note, has been well received in progressive quarters keen to prove that neoliberalism is a negation of their ideology rather than a version of it. This revisionist argument will surely gain standing among political observers of (or rather, below) a certain age with little or no memory of the Cold War and its world-historical stakes.