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Liberalism Against Utopianism

Samuel Moyn’s analysis of what ails liberal societies is fatally compromised by his own socialist commitments.

· 9 min read
Liberalism Against Utopianism
Hannah Arendt, Alamy

A review of Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times by Samuel Moyn, 240 pages, Yale University Press (August 2023)

The intellectual historian Samuel Moyn, Professor of Law and History at Yale, has become an influential explorer of our ideological moment. A scholarly and intelligent public figure, Moyn is an increasingly important thinker on the contemporary US Left, always interesting and provocative, regardless of whether or not one agrees with his positions. His broad erudition defies the narrow specialisation of the academy and he is refreshingly honest about his own socialist agenda. Some of his previous works, such as the The Last Utopia (2010) and Not Enough (2018), argued that human-rights doctrines are historically contingent and insufficient as a basis for politics. Although the minimalist requirements of human rights left them standing after the collapse of all other utopian ideological projects, Moyn believes that this success has come at the expense of more genuine or radical solutions to our problems.

Samuel Moyn, YouTube

Moyn’s new book Liberalism Against Itself deepens this critique by training its sights on “Cold War liberalism,” an often pejorative term for the particular brand of liberalism that came to dominate US political discourse in the 1940s and ’50s at the height of tensions between the West and the Communist Bloc. “Cold War liberalism,” the opening line of Moyn’s book declares, “was a catastrophe—for liberalism.” By overreacting to the Soviet threat, Moyn believes that liberals adopted what philosopher Judith Shklar called a “liberalism of fear.” Obsessed with the dangers of tyranny, they abandoned their previously progressive stances for an impoverished and defensive crouch of anti-totalitarianism and anti-communism.

In this way, Cold War liberals became preoccupied with freedom at the expense of a more positive commitment to the mastery of human nature and society. Growing up “in the presence of the most egalitarian and emancipatory state liberals ever built,” Cold War liberals failed to defend a progressive welfare policy. And by discrediting alternatives, they “created the conditions not for universal freedom and equality but for the waves of enemies such liberals keep finding at the gates—or already inside them,” especially neoconservatism and neoliberalism. Liberalism, we are told, must therefore be revitalised by recovering the richer aspects of its tradition that predate the Cold War. As Moyn remarked in an interview last year, “[M]y main emphasis as a historian of political thought is really to document episodes of foreclosure, and to use history as a tool of opening up the space of intellectual and political possibilities.”

Liberalism Against Itself insightfully traces the interactions of political thought, groups, contexts, and influences in the history of certain ideas. Unfortunately, Moyn’s scholarship is compromised by his underlying political project. The book is divided into six chapters, each of which deals with an emblematic Cold War figure, and each individual provides a lens through which to explore a particular limitation of Cold War liberalism. Moyn is most sympathetic to Judith Shklar, deferring to her analysis of the movement and even framing his narrative around her. He relies on her analysis of how the Enlightenment, “centered on agency and emancipation,” came to be feared by liberals as the source of totalitarian projects. According to this reading, liberals betrayed their own origins by allowing the Soviet Union “exclusive inheritance of the Enlightenment in its own self-presentation.” Conversely, Moyn uses Isaiah Berlin to show how liberals became suspicious of “romanticism,” even though it had “been the prime source” of “modern perfectionism,” the sole compelling account of the “highest life” of creative agency or self-making.

Karl Popper is, in turn, criticized for his attack on the notion of historical progress. Whereas 19th-century liberalism had apparently “been built on the terrain of providentialist optimism about perfectibility and progress,” Cold War liberals became sceptical of finding any meaning in the historical process. In contrast, neoconservative Gertrude Himmelfarb and literary critic Lionel Trilling are chastised for helping to popularise, respectively, religious and psychoanalytic beliefs in liberal thought; beliefs which emphasised inherent limitations to human striving. Lastly, although not actually a liberal, Hannah Arendt is subjected to perhaps the most one-sided treatment. Moyn offers Arendt as a representative of Cold War liberalism’s supposedly racist hypocrisy for supporting Zionism even as she worried that decolonization movements were paving “a road to serfdom and terror.” This chapter also introduces one of the more interesting subthreads of the book—an exploration of the fact that many of these Cold War liberals were European Jewish exiles (though Moyn’s conclusions are disappointingly noncommittal).

Moyn’s analysis dwells on how these thinkers creatively constructed their own tradition, particularly the canonisation and anti-canonisation of their heroes and villains. Throughout his analysis, however, Moyn is engaged in his own process of canonisation and anti-canonisation. Liberalism, after all, is notoriously difficult to define. Moyn equivocates between what he calls a nominalist definition (treating people as liberals if they identified as such) and a contextualist one (identifying a list of characteristic features of liberal thought which would apply to figures regardless of their own adopted descriptors). This equivocation, though at some level unavoidable, allows Moyn to conveniently include and exclude figures from the “true” liberal tradition as his argument requires. Thus, Arendt is included as a “fellow traveler,” along with Hegel, the broader socialist tradition, and even Marx. Most neoconservatives, Straussians, “Christian fatalists” or “Romantic pessimists,” on the other hand, are excluded. Predictably, Moyn’s criteria for inclusion tend to skew left.

A simple recalibration of liberalism’s boundaries would require a very different story, as would a broader time-frame. Liberalism Against Itself holds that Cold War liberals broke with the roots of their own tradition. Yet the supposed roots that Moyn identifies often only reach back to the immediately preceding period. In fact, liberalism’s roots lie in the early modern period. Only by returning to these can one adequately explore what is essential or accidental in its tradition, and identify the fundamental philosophical presuppositions that represent its real stakes and distinguish it from other political traditions—the denial of transcendence, the separation of will and reason, the search for a philosophically neutral regime, or the amplification of liberty and equality into primary principles.

But Moyn’s analysis of earlier periods is too superficial. In a work defending the complexity of the liberal tradition, he has a remarkably unsophisticated understanding of the Enlightenment as a movement that unambiguously supported his own socialism. His reading of earlier figures, such as Rousseau and Alexis de Tocqueville, flattens their contours. And he has no time for important republican and Christian conceptions of virtue in liberal thought, nor for the Anglophone arguments of prudent scepticism and enlightened self-interest of Adam Smith and the American Founders. Throughout his career, Moyn has been more attracted to narratives of discontinuity—to breaks and ruptures—than to continuities. His “deconstruction” of the tradition is informed by his politics, emphasising that the supposed status quo is actually new, contingent, and a product of individual agency, and therefore readily changeable. But this claim is made at the expense of a holistic understanding.

The most fundamental limitation with Moyn’s project, however, is a limitation of intellectual history itself. The discipline is concerned with contextualising thinkers and tracing their influences and conditions, but in so doing, it has an unfortunate tendency to relegate them to the past. If treated as mere products of their time, there is no need to engage with their arguments, to assess the truth of their philosophical, historical, or social claims, or to learn anything from them. Short of true dialogue, Moyn’s criticisms generally boil down to the fact that Cold War liberals are too conservative for his liking. And a true dialogue with these figures is not possible because their conservatism represents a rejection of Moyn’s fundamental philosophical assumptions.

This is especially true of his understanding of ideas, which he believes are free-floating, all-powerful entities that can be imposed upon the world without any resistance from underlying realities. He argues, for instance, that liberals “have paid a high price” for their supposed scepticism about historical progress, for “if history is not progress, it is meaningless.” That statement—rather reminiscent of Merleau-Ponty’s claim that “if Marxism is false, there is no reason in history”—is disputable in itself. But even if it were true, wishing does not make something so. Historical progress either exists or it does not; its political implications are a secondary matter. Nor does Moyn’s lament about the conservative consequences of Christian or Freudian doctrines amount to a rebuttal of their claims. But because Moyn wishes there were no limitations to human striving, he dismisses the existence of any such limitations.

Moyn, then, is not interested in politics as such—the messy art of the possible and the compromise. He is only interested in his own brand of utopianism. He deals in high-level abstractions, and displays no interest in any contradictions between his desires and reality. He has claimed, for example, that he is a left Hegelian who believes in “a kind of emancipatory statism through the institutionalisation of a free community of equals who are creative agents … which is not at all bureaucratic or technocratic.” Setting aside the supposed necessity of an interventionist state for the realisation of higher truths and values, it is not clear how one can have such a state which is “not at all bureaucratic or technocratic.”

More importantly, Moyn believes that his political opponents are responsible for all the evils of the world. Socialists have apparently never been able to fully implement their agenda, but the Right has. So his mantra is “not enough,” and he spends no time reflecting that some of today’s problems might have actually been produced by the Left itself. Nor is there any hint that, until the COVID-19 pandemic, the last few “neoliberal” decades had seen an unprecedented decline in rates of poverty throughout the world. None of these points is decisive, of course, but a serious political project would at least engage with them, along with other basic facts and inconvenient truths. As the Cold War liberal Raymond Aron once remarked: “Political philosophy cannot be ignorant of reality: one cannot be socialist without studying political economy and giving oneself an idea of what socialism really signifies.”

Indeed, Moyn’s impatience with economic and historic reality leads him to make politically and morally reckless claims. He suggests at one point that the belief of Cold War liberals that “long-range ends could never justify short-term crimes” was equivalent to denying any role to “collective advancement in history.” The implication of this view is that collective advancement would require the commission of crimes. He draws morally obtuse equivalences between colonial and totalitarian regimes. He is disdainful of any fears about the outcomes of anti-colonial movements, even though many of those movements turned out to be just as violent and repressive as liberals feared. He regrets that liberals have not tried to spread freedom (in some non-imperial way, of course). And he is generally dismissive of the threat of tyranny that many, including Tocqueville, identified as an ever-present possibility in mass democracies.

In a New York Times op-ed last year, Moyn and his co-author suggest that Congress could simply defy the Constitution by passing a Congress Act to “get to a more democratic order” in which “the basic structure of government, like whether to elect the president by majority vote or to limit judges to fixed terms, would be decided by the present electorate, as opposed to one from some foggy past.” It is not clear how seriously we are meant to take this proposal to effectively launch a coup in the name of democracy, but the inevitable result would be civil war or tyranny.

Liberalism Against Itself might provoke some salutary discussions about the absence of vision among our political class as they look for a rational and effective politics beyond reactionary or divisive identity politics. Moyn’s book correctly identifies many of liberalism’s limitations. But the answer to our contemporary problems lies not in a new radicalism that recklessly abandons political prudence and moderation in favour of utopian projects. Those of us who are not Hegelians do not have the luxury of assuming we know all the answers.

In contrast to the complacency of many of their radical contemporaries (who all too often surrendered to the allure of brutal authoritarian regimes), the best of the Cold War liberals approached the world with a modest, humane, and wise politics. As Joshua Cherniss has recently written, figures such as Raymond Aron were admirable, not so much for the particular positions they adopted but for their abhorrence of ruthlessness and their temperamental attraction to truth, complexity, and uncertainty. For all their flaws, those Cold War liberals are better equipped to provide us with guidance in troubled times than Samuel Moyn.

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