Cold War Liberalism Returns

Cold War Liberalism Returns

A left that is ambivalent about liberalism can still seek to engage it.

Isaiah Berlin in 1992 (Sophie Bassouls/Getty Images)

Liberalism in Dark Times: The Liberal Ethos in the Twentieth Century
by Joshua L. Cherniss
Princeton University Press, 2021, 328 pp.

Liberalism against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times
by Samuel Moyn
Yale University Press, 2023, 240 pp.

“Free society and totalitarianism today struggle in the minds of men,” wrote the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in The Vital Center in 1949. The book situated a progressive liberalism against authoritarian projects to its left and to its right. At home, Schlesinger wanted to build a welfare state that would make American democracy worth defending. Internationally, he wanted the United States to contain communism by building up progressive movements around the world. Liberalism, he thought, should inspire a “fighting faith.”

Schlesinger got his wish. Cold War liberalism informed U.S. foreign policy; Schlesinger himself became an advisor to President Kennedy. And people have been fighting about this faith ever since. From the right, critics of Cold War liberalism objected to it as a kind of global New Deal. On the left, especially in the 1960s, it was held responsible for U.S. violence everywhere from Cuba to Vietnam. The phrase “Cold War liberalism” originated as an insult, and it has come to indicate an unseemly proximity to U.S. power.

Because of the echoes in our times of the conditions that produced Cold War liberalism, it should not surprise us that recent years have brought a renewed interest in the tradition. Today, its inheritors—such as the historian Timothy Snyder—warn ominously of the growing threats from the authoritarian right. But they are also concerned about the left’s drift toward a rejection of liberalism. The war in Ukraine has further enlivened their coalition.

What should be made of this revival? Two recent books have opposite positions on the matter. Political theorist Joshua L. Cherniss believes that Cold War liberals, however imperfect, developed a political attitude that is worthy of emulating. In his view, today’s left is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past, and Cold War liberal thought can help it to correct course. Historian and law professor Samuel Moyn, by contrast, is skeptical—not of the liberal tradition tout court but of Cold War liberals in particular, who he holds responsible for causing liberalism to abandon more attractive paths. Despite their apparent incompatibility, the books agree about more than would first appear. Nonetheless, they risk talking past the audiences that most need to hear what they have to say.

In Liberalism in Dark Times, Cherniss analyzes four thinkers proximate to Cold War liberalism: Albert Camus, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Despite their differences, Cherniss argues that they each sought to construct a political philosophy that balanced individual freedom and social obligation, in response to the European experiences of the early and mid-twentieth century. What unites them, according to Cherniss, is less a set of ideas than a disposition toward politics. Their enemy was the “ruthlessness” of many communists (and fascists) of the era, characterized by the rejection of all “scruples, doubts, hesitation and remorse in pursuing some ultimate purpose.” The “tempered liberal,” by contrast, foregrounds “modesty, fortitude, forbearance, intellectual flexibility, ethical resolution, and decency.”

Camus, Aron, Berlin, and Niebuhr were all born around the turn of the twentieth century and came of political age in the years between the First and Second World Wars. They saw liberal governments experience crisis and fall to fascism. Appalled by the far right, some came close to being captured by the gravity of the Communist Party. But they all eventually recoiled from communism—especially in its Stalinist form—and settled into a more centrist politics. To millions of others in those years, communism seemed to possess the qualities needed to overcome the weaknesses of liberal democracy and thus to transform the world. Membership in the Communist Party offered an intense sense of belonging to a movement that was carrying forward the mission of history itself. A “rationalistic fanaticism overcame my doubts,” wrote the communist Lev Kopelev. “Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of that goal everything was permissible.”

It was that last claim that Cherniss’s liberals decided they could not abide. As a young French Algerian, Camus was committed to the left. He joined the Algerian Communist Party in 1935, where he organized a Workers’ Theater. But he lasted little more than a year, leaving after the party line shifted from support for Algerian independence (which Camus favored) to opposition. After the Second World War, when the Communist Party was very strong in France, he became an early critic of Stalinism and the use of terror to achieve political ends. In The Rebel, published in 1951, Camus advocated for an ethical position that combined responsibility to work against injustice with limits on the pursuit of that goal. “Actions that will probably be ineffective” were preferable to “those that will certainly be criminal.” You could not, he thought, build a radiant future on a totalitarian foundation.

Though they did not agree on all matters, the other thinkers that Cherniss describes came to similar conclusions. While working as a visiting academic in Germany in the early 1930s, Aron witnessed the rise of Nazism, which instilled a fear of fanaticism. He was never a communist. Still, he had been a critical admirer of French Prime Minister Leon Blum’s government in that decade and identified as a socialist. (Later, he would be more identified with the liberal center-right.) Berlin, born in Riga, moved as a child to Petrograd and lived through the Russian Revolution, which produced in him a horror of political violence. His family fled to London, and he became a defender of the liberal tradition, albeit a center-left version of it that did not accept existing liberals as adequate to the task of defending liberal democracy. (Berlin described himself as occupying the “extreme Right Wing edge of the Left Wing movement, both philosophically and politically.”) Niebuhr, the only American of the bunch, oscillated between liberal and left-wing theologies and political commitments. During the Great Depression, he was radicalized by visiting a Ford factory and seeing the cost it imposed on its workers. He ran for Congress as a Socialist. But the Second World War caused him to abandon pacifism, and he came to defend human rights in the context of democratic capitalism. Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer—“God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other”—is often used as an expression of individual commitment, but it also summarizes the view of politics he developed.

In the years after the Second World War, with fascism seemingly defeated, the question that remained was how to rebuild the world in the shadows of the Cold War. All four of these thinkers rejected the Soviet Union as a model or an ally and thought that its Western defenders were committing a grave error. Aron’s best-known work, 1955’s The Opium of the Intellectuals, castigated French intellectuals for their attachment to Marxism and their eagerness to judge capitalism and democracy harshly while forgiving the myriad problems of the Soviet Union. Granted, democracy was endlessly disappointing. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary,” Niebuhr wrote. Democracy was the only regime that proclaims history “must be written not in verse but in prose,” Aron argued. But participation in the democratic process required its own kind of discipline. As Camus had put it, “It is hard to gird oneself for a struggle in which the objectives are so limited and there is barely a glimmer of hope.” They still thought it better than the alternative.

Many, then and now, have found faults with the writers who make up the canon of Cold War liberalism. They spent too much time excoriating the left, sliding toward the right as a result and sometimes adding fuel to McCarthyite fires. In the Cold War context, their anti-communism made them defenders of “the West,” and so they grew out of phase with its internal and external critics. All four of Cherniss’s chosen thinkers published in Encounter, the CIA-supported magazine—evidence that they were a part of the left that the United States thought was compatible with its hegemony. Their attacks on “ruthlessness” made them equivocal or outright unsympathetic toward decolonial struggles.

Cherniss’s goal, however, is not to defend every aspect of their thought, but to argue that the disposition he associates with them remains useful. The conjuncture that produced the Cold War liberals—the Great Depression, Nazism, communism—has echoes in our own time. Cherniss writes with sympathy about the rise of interest in socialism since 2016, but worries that leftists will repeat the errors of previous generations. “I have been preoccupied by the vices [of intolerance, self-righteousness, and a craving for simplicity and certainty],” he writes, “not only because I feel horror at them, but because I recognize their pull in myself.” Some on the left, he thinks, “confuse emotionally satisfying action with politically effective action, to treat anger as not only psychologically valid but politically wise, to conclude that repaying ruthlessness in kind is both justified and effective—and to ignore or extoll the suffering that such ruthlessness inflicts.”

There is something puzzling about this. The socialist revival has been, in the main, a democratic socialist revival, not a Stalinist one. Even if some consider themselves outside of the liberal philosophical tradition, the contemporary left in the United States has expended its energy on the democratic process: it has organized marches in the streets for racial justice, knocked on doors, led union drives in workplaces, and turned out to vote. Elected politicians on the left, from Bernie Sanders to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, engage pragmatically with the political system. The sole example of an anti-liberal mentality that Cherniss provides is Vicky Osterweil’s book In Defense of Looting. We are left to surmise that Cherniss probably had reservations about some forms of protest after the murder of George Floyd. It’s a slender reed on which to perch.

There is a further problem with the book’s endorsement of a “tempered liberalism” for our time: the contemporary figure who seems to best embody these values, Barack Obama, never appears in the book. Obama’s affinity for Niebuhr is well-known. In a 2007 interview with David Brooks, he said he had learned from Niebuhr that “we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate [evil, hardship, and pain]. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.” Obama had many of the virtues Cherniss commends: he fought for improvements with a humility about his own position and a recognition of the validity of disagreement. The trouble is not that these were bad values, nor that Obama was an unusually immoral man. It’s that his administration left many urgent problems unsolved, and these virtues of character were turned into weapons against him by ruthless political opponents. If Cherniss thinks the left should be more like Obama to fight people like Trump, it must at least be acknowledged that Obama’s leadership produced the conditions under which Trump was elected.

The best version of Cherniss’s argument points to the arrogance of some leftists who refuse to see merit in any positions other than their own. Of course, this problem can occur anywhere on the political spectrum, including among self-described liberals. But this kind of thinking is a genuine vulnerability for the left, which remains a distinct minority in the United States. Coalitions can’t be built on the basis of contempt. Acute hostility to liberalism worked for a time to recruit some politically disaffected people to socialist identification, but it is a dead end. Indeed, some nominal leftists who made a caustic anti-liberalism central to their worldview seem to now be drifting toward an alliance with the anti-liberal right. A left that is ambivalent toward liberalism can still seek to engage it, as the left’s most successful politicians know.

At first glance, the contrast between Cherniss’s Liberalism in Dark Times and Samuel Moyn’s Liberalism against Itself could not be sharper. Cherniss has excavated virtues from the tradition, while Moyn holds it responsible for many of the ways that liberalism has gone awry. This skepticism is in keeping with Moyn’s previous work. For many years, he has written provocative histories of human rights. The discourse of human rights expanded dramatically in the 1970s—in part because that language provided a means to escape Cold War binaries and condemn the violations committed both by communist states (such as those in Eastern Europe) and by anti-communist dictatorships (such as those in Latin America). Moyn has argued that the framework of human rights, at least in the hands of the wealthy citizens and agencies of the Global North, can obscure other kinds of problems. “Focusing on sufficient protections, human rights norms and politics have selectively emphasized one aspect of social justice, scanting in particular the distributional victory of the rich,” he wrote in Not Enough. His critique is not that human rights are meaningless or a mask for domination, but that they are “unthreatening to a neoliberal movement” and global inequalities.

Liberalism Against Itself is not a book about human rights. (In some ways this is curious, because there are connections to be drawn between Isaiah Berlin’s idea of negative freedom—freedom from interference—and the limits of the human rights imagination.) But Moyn’s book continues one of the themes that ties together his work: he wants liberals to recognize that their standards for justice are too low. In both his works on human rights and liberalism, he is not calling for a rejection of these concepts, but a recognition of their limits.

Like Cherniss, Moyn has pulled common themes from a lineup of thinkers who were part of or adjacent to Cold War liberalism: Judith Shklar, Karl Popper, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, and, once again, Isaiah Berlin. Where Cherniss saw an admirable commitment to a politics of restrained toughness, Moyn sees a terrible mistake: “Cold War liberalism was a catastrophe—for liberalism.”

Moyn argues that Cold War liberals, horrified by totalitarianism, defined themselves against it. They searched for the origins of the problem and located it in the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century romanticism, which seemed uncomfortably compatible with the fascist cult of irrationality. The historian Jacob Talmon, for example, blamed Jean-Jacques Rousseau for totalitarianism. Many Cold War liberals interpreted the French Revolution more broadly as proto-totalitarian. Moyn argues that by reshaping itself in opposition to totalitarianism, liberalism gave up a sense of the higher callings of life, and the idea of historical progress.

Communism, by contrast, claimed to anticipate the unfolding of history. Some Cold War liberals, like Karl Popper, made their objection to that view central to their understanding of the world. Born in Vienna in 1902, Popper began his career as a philosopher of science, arguing that the standard of falsification—the possibility that a claim could be proven wrong—was central to the scientific process. When he took up political philosophy in the late 1930s, he tried to apply standards of falsification to political analysis as well. “Sweeping historical prophecies are entirely beyond the scope of the scientific method,” Popper argued in The Open Society and its Enemies. If you assumed that you knew where history was headed, and that it was headed toward something wonderful, you could justify atrocities in the present. But in rejecting the whole notion of progress, Moyn argues, Popper regrettably “ceded to the Soviets and their myth of scientific progress the philosophy of history that had once made liberal ambition imaginable.” The thing that Cherniss admires in these figures is what Moyn finds lacking.

Furthermore, Moyn makes the case that Cold War liberalism prepared the ground for neoconservatism and neoliberalism. Foreign policy neoconservatives, advocating for aggressive military interventions, drew from Cold War liberals to identify the West as the source of virtue, leading to errors such as the war in Iraq. The people we tend to call neoliberals today shared the Cold War liberals’ critique of the state as the source of morality, substituting the market as the font of personal freedom. For the most part, Cold War liberals favored robust welfare states and viewed neoliberals like Friedrich Hayek as extremists. But it is true that some Cold War liberals (such as Michael Polanyi or Karl Jaspers) held neoliberal views of the economy. And the welfare state crises of the 1970s arguably narrowed the gap between the camps.

Moyn is most sympathetic to Judith Shklar. Born in 1928 in Riga, Shklar was younger than many of the other thinkers under examination in Liberalism Against Itself. A defender of constitutional democracy, she became identified with the Cold War liberal tradition. Yet in her 1957 book After Utopia, Shklar developed a position that Moyn has come to share: the “decay of the radical aspirations of liberalism. . . have left the Enlightenment without intellectual heirs.” Shklar also mounted a satisfying attack on the “conservative liberalism” of Hayek, who saw totalitarianism lurking in ordinary democracy and any economic planning. “What is disturbing in this analysis is that no attention at all is given to the actual course of events,” Shklar noted wryly.

Like Cherniss, Moyn intends for his investigation of the Cold War liberals to reflect on our time. But instead of positive lessons, he thinks we should take negative ones. Cold War liberals tended to catastrophize about their enemies, seeing themselves as the possessors of clear thinking against others who thought “ideologically.” This was more justifiable when Nazism and Stalinism were close at hand. But Cold War liberalism can also become a kind of closed ideological system, fixating on enemies in ways that make it possible to overstate the innocence of the West or to prescribe poor solutions (like the War on Terror) to real problems. Moyn worries that elevating Trump to the status of an illiberal emergency permits liberals to rest on their laurels. “Warning in perpetuity that the alternatives to liberalism are worse,” he writes, “has proved no more than a rationalization for avoiding thinking about how to save liberalism—which is to say, how to make it credible enough for salvation.”

While Cherniss finds much that is worthy of emulation in the Cold War liberal tradition, Moyn holds it responsible for many problems in our time. But this is not simply a difference of opinion; it is also a matter of definition. Even among the cases chosen by the authors, it might be doubted whether Camus (too eccentric), Himmelfarb (too conservative), or Arendt (who said she wasn’t a liberal) represent the tradition. Even those who are well-described as Cold War liberals adopted a wide variety of positions. Some, like Walt Rostow, supported the Vietnam War; others, like Niebuhr, opposed it. Rostow even had a teleological view of history (though one that he thought culminated in capitalism, not socialism). We cannot use “Cold War liberalism” as a guide to action—whether positive or negative—even if we wanted to. It does seem possible to maintain an anti-authoritarian commitment to democracy, while recognizing that this should lead neither to complacency nor provide an excuse for the repression of dissenting views.

Though both books reward their readers, they may struggle to find the audience that most needs to hear their message. Cherniss spends most of his book celebrating the virtues of Camus, Aron, Berlin, and Niebuhr. But liberals in good standing already honor them, and they can nod along to the critique of the contemporary left without considering the ways that it needs to be qualified. Anti-liberal leftist readers might have responded better to portraits of “tempered socialists” who held firm to egalitarian convictions while retaining humility and pluralism, like Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Pepe Mujica. Chile’s young leftist president, Gabriel Boric, includes a (possibly apocryphal) quote from Camus in his Twitter bio: “Doubt should follow conviction like a shadow.”

Moyn is also writing to liberals, calling on them to find the best in their tradition. But it is non-liberal leftists who will most easily accept his critique, since he presents liberalism as a relatively unattractive politics. They might conclude that liberalism is a bankrupt project—perhaps even inferior to the things it criticizes—rather than one that needs renewal. In the background of the book is the idea that liberalism has a more admirable history to draw from, but that tradition isn’t put before the reader in any detail. It can seem as if Moyn is asking his readers to bake a cake and supplying them only with a list of ingredients to avoid.

Yet for books that would appear to be at philosophical loggerheads, it is striking how much agreement there is about practical political questions. Cherniss thinks that the left ought to learn to be tough but flexible; Moyn thinks that centrist liberals should recover some vision and an inspirational sense of progress. Both believe that Cold War liberalism was at its best when it was social democratic, though they offer different diagnoses about how that strain of politics disappeared. While Cherniss worries about errors on the left, Moyn worries about the errors of centrists. Yet both are arguing, from different positions, for a reinvigorated left-liberalism. Two tributaries do not a mighty river make, but it’s a start.

Patrick Iber teaches history at the University of Wisconsin. He is a member of the Dissent editorial board and the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America.