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Given these circumstances, it is little wonder that there has been a revival of interest in the Cold War liberals of yesteryear. In the search for answers to the illiberal predicaments of our time, the political thought of Isaiah Berlin, Reinhold Niebuhr, Raymond Aron, and the like proves attractive to some. They tout, according to their admirers, a fighting liberal faith in defense against illiberal enemies abroad and a gospel of moderation, consensus, and pluralism against ideological extremes at home.
But not everyone is convinced that a revival of Cold War liberalism is the solution to today’s challenges. Indeed, some see the current order of things as itself part of Cold War liberalism’s disastrous contemporary legacy, one from which we must free ourselves if liberalism is to survive. This is the view taken in the Yale historian Samuel Moyn’s new book, Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times. Moyn argues that at the very center of Cold War liberalism is a politics of fear — a fear that freedom might collapse into tyranny absent a robust security state to contain rival world powers. By examining the writings of Hannah Arendt, Judith Shklar, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lionel Trilling, Karl Popper, and Isaiah Berlin, Moyn shows how Cold War liberalism turned against such key aspects of 19th-century liberalism as the insistence on a highest good and the commitment to some story of emancipatory historical progress. Instead, liberalism morphed, over the course of the late 20th century, into a security doctrine. Cold War liberalism, by Moyn’s lights, shared many elective affinities with the neoliberalism that succeeded it.
The Cold War liberals continue to divide opinion. That division is on display in this forum, which brings together sympathizers and critics of Cold War liberalism — Jan-Werner Müller, a political theory professor at Princeton University; Penny Marie Von Eschen, a history professor at the University of Virginia; Vaughn Rasberry, an associate professor of English at Stanford University; and Nicolas Guilhot, a professor of intellectual history at the European University Institute — to discuss Moyn’s book. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Why don’t we start off with Moyn’s definition of Cold War liberalism. Moyn argues that Cold War liberals placed the fear of the collapse of freedom into tyranny at the center of liberal thought. In the process, they clipped off much of 19th-century liberalism’s insistence on a highest good, its commitment to some story of emancipation in history, and its agreement with Marxism that the conditions for the enjoyment of freedom and rights matter much more than their formal or legal annunciation.
Jan, you have written a lot on these matters. Do you take issue with Moyn’s definition of Cold War liberalism and how he sees it in relation to its 19th-century predecessor?
Jan-Werner Müller: I think we’re better off talking about something like family resemblances between different kinds of liberalism. I agree with quite a number of the characteristics of the family that Moyn describes as a “liberalism of fear.” These people shared a certain distrust of mass democracy, no doubt about that. But one important element I would stress that isn’t in the book is value pluralism.
That doesn’t necessarily improve the picture morally and politically for critics of Cold War liberalism. Value pluralism, in the eyes of critics, can give us reason to agonize: “Sorry, we can’t be more progressive because not all good things go together.” Or, even worse, it can give us the wrong kind of license: “Yes, we have to put up with a certain amount of torture, because we’re always facing tragic choices.”
I think some other claims in the book only work because some central members of the family are basically erased from the family picture. If you were to include someone like Raymond Aron, a central and classic Cold War liberal, it would be much harder to claim that these thinkers were against the Enlightenment, or that they had unmitigated hostility to Karl Marx, or that they had exactly the same relationship to Zionism. So that’s a problem: The cast of characters makes the whole picture look very particular in a way that isn’t always faithful to the phenomenon.
The book often doesn’t discuss ideas in any great detail. Often, we are swiftly moved on to a claim about the consequences of ideas: that ultimately the consequences for leaving the welfare state undefended were “catastrophic,” “fateful,” “egregious,” etc. But a lot of these stories could be told in a very different way. Tony Judt famously proposed that actually the postwar welfare states were precisely a result of the liberalism of fear — they were a kind of anti-totalitarian project to prevent a recurrence of the catastrophes of the mid-20th century.
Nicolas Guilhot: I agree that we are talking about family resemblances — and so there are variations, of course, but also common stock. Thinking about Moyn’s cast of characters and who else could be included, his argument struck me as solid and scalable. Leaving out folks like Edward Shils or Richard Hofstadter certainly does not affect the book’s central argument — on the contrary. What perhaps would be interesting is to move beyond the Anglocentric perspective of the book and include various continental figures: Leszek Kołakowski, a neoliberal like Bruno Leoni in Italy, Raymond Aron, a number of the fellow travelers of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. That might give us a somewhat-different chronology of the decline of progressive liberalism that looks not just at the 19th century, but perhaps more at the 1920s and 1930s, when strands of liberalism very close to socialism were still very much alive in Europe.
As for how to tell the story of the welfare state, Moyn’s point is that there is a contradiction at the heart of Cold War liberalism: Cold War liberals developed what he calls a “libertarian” concept of freedom and liberalism, and while some of them were personally in favor of the welfare state, they were left with nothing to ward off the neoliberal onslaught. One can always tell other stories, of course, but I find the Judt story Jan referred to earlier (that actually the postwar welfare states were a result of the liberalism of fear) unconvincing. First, simultaneity does not imply causality. But more generally, it is not that the postwar welfare state was the result of liberalism, as if social institutions came fully formed from the womb of political ideologies. Another way to look at the welfare state is to see it as a conquest wrested by social movements or organized political parties. These conquests did not take place in a vacuum but in a polarized international context and a rivalry with the Soviet Union, in which demonstrating a capacity to accommodate workers’ demands was crucial for the West. In that sense, it was a compromise with capitalistic interests and a compromise made possible, among other things, by the existence of a state that was anything but liberal, the USSR. Which is also why social democracy, by 1989, enters an irreversible agony.
Penny Von Eschen: I second that. But this is where I find Moyn’s marshaling of the history of a politics of fear that leads to a suspicion of the social quite compelling. His emphasis is on why the liberal tradition abandoned a politics of hope and emancipation. I found the chapter on Gertrude Himmelfarb (and her close intellectual affinities with her husband, Irving Kristol) especially illuminating. Moyn argues that Himmelfarb’s “neo-Victorian antistatism coupled with familialist moralism saw them move from their early criticism of welfare programs toward enthusiastic support for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.” I would emphasize that Himmelfarb and Kristol provided intellectual fodder for the 1990s culture wars, blending, as Moyn argues, antistatism and Christian moralism. The potent combination of fear and antistatism led Kristol to declare in 1993 that, with global communism defeated, the real cold war has only begun. For Kristol, “my cold war has only increased in intensity as sector after sector American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos” (National Interest 1993). I think Moyn’s elaboration of Cold War era politics of fear and its consequences is a vital contribution. It was precisely that mix of antistatism and Christian moralism that was echoed by such culture warriors as Pat Buchanan and taken up in the 1990s political platforms and legislation of the Republican party.
The Himmelfarb/Kristol culture wars follow another moment when you’ve got very sharp articulations of the politics of hope from such Eastern bloc dissidents as Václav Havel, and from Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement. For these figures, redistribution, providing the means for a genuine emancipation, is on the table — and all that really fails. Just as Cold War liberals rejected post-World War II decolonizing projects, guided by an antistatist politics of fear, they rejected the 1980s emancipatory projects. The democratic projects of the 1980s, from the anti-apartheid movement to the Eastern bloc reformers, contained self-conscious critiques of totalizing ideologies in both state-communist and capitalist imperialist forms, seeking to politically democratize within a mixed economy that preserved social and economic rights. But the anti-apartheid movement in alliance with the unfinished decolonizing projects of the global south, and attempts to democratize in the Eastern bloc, were met by the brutal antistatist policies of structural adjustment and shock therapy.
When Mandela is released from prison in 1990, and he comes to the U.S., it puts questions of economic redistribution and the unfinished business of the emancipation of the nonaligned bloc on the table. George H.W. Bush says, “You have to denounce Arafat; you have to denounce Castro. Do not use the word ‘nationalism.’” Mandela is told, “You must denounce redistribution.”
Vaughn Rasberry: With respect to the cast of characters, certainly there are some important exclusions here. There will always be some deficit when you ignore certain canonical figures and emphasize others. However, I do think that Moyn wants to establish a certain coherence based on the experience of chiefly Jewish intellectuals. To do that, he triangulates Zionism, decolonization, and what he calls a notion of “white freedom.” And he argues that Cold War liberalism failed to stand as a bulwark in the face of neoliberalism. Rather than interfering in it, it paved the way for the market logic of the turn of the 20th century.
Steinmetz-Jenkins: Moyn argues that Hannah Arendt, the famed author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, actually promoted “white freedom.” I think he gets this phrase from Tyler Stovall’s book, which came out a couple years ago. Others have pointed out, of course, that Arendt’s thought is haunted by a civilizational and, more or less, white understanding of freedom — lionizing the American Revolution without mentioning slavery or the Haitian Revolution, and then attacking the civil rights movement in her own time, while proving critical of global decolonization. Vaughn and Penny, you have written on questions of liberalism and race.
Rasberry: The chapter on Arendt is fascinating, and I think that Moyn is quite right that Arendt is notable among her contemporaries for having taken a public stand on decolonization and on civil rights. That explains, to some extent, why her thought remains relevant for younger generations of scholars — even if their interest is in highlighting Arendt’s racism and Eurocentrism. She articulates some kind of connection — it’s not really clear how it works — between late 19th-century imperialism, particularly the scramble for Africa, and the onset of totalitarianism and total war. W.E.B Du Bois, by the way, formulates a pithier and more persuasive argument about the relationship between imperialism in Africa and total war in Europe — about three decades before Arendt.
So Arendt renders herself vulnerable to criticism in a way that the other members of this group do not. As Moyn points out, their silence is deafening. And it’s impossible for me to imagine that some of these other figures didn’t worry about the consequences of decolonization and how it fits into the broader politics of liberalism and the Cold War. But as many commentators have observed, in Arendt’s case the medicine she offers is worse than the illness. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she reproduces a racist image of European depredation in Africa, and in later texts she cannot quite fathom the colonized world’s aspirations for freedom, or why decolonization may necessitate violence. I think that Moyn is quite right, then, to characterize Arendt’s notion of freedom as something akin to “white freedom.”
Black Cold War liberals tend to split the difference between an anti-totalitarian position on the one hand and Black identity on the other.
I noted that I think Moyn does choose this cast to establish a certain thematic coherence, but I don’t think it’s actually true that all Cold War liberals, or even most, did not have something to say about decolonization. If Moyn had considered African American Cold War liberals, that portion of the book might look quite different. I’m thinking about figures like J. Saunders Redding or even Ralph Bunche, who didn’t have the luxury of remaining silent on decolonization. The delicate negotiation between the ideological demands of Cold War liberalism and the particularities of Black subjectivity at that moment meant that they had to weigh in.
Black Cold War liberals, on my reading, tend to split the difference between an anti-totalitarian position on the one hand and Black identity on the other. Their story is also a part of the story of Cold War liberalism. Carol Anderson’s work on this subject is crucial.
Müller: You’re all being very gentle and polite, but it seems that what some of us are effectively saying is that the book systematically excludes evidence that contradicts the hypothesis.
Von Eschen: I agree with Moyn that Arendt “pathologizes non-white armed struggle at home and abroad” and more broadly places the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and decolonial struggles outside of what she understood as the legitimate terrain of the political. Arendt’s rejection of the civil-rights movement illuminates her affinities with Cold War liberalism in its antistatism, its radically circumscribed view of the political sphere, and its utter inability to imagine an emancipatory politics.
Arendt’s objections to government intervention in the 1957 Little Rock crisis, when white Southern political leaders and feral mobs blocked court-ordered desegregation, rested on her claim that desegregation was a social, rather than a political, issue. Of course, Arendt’s suspicion of the state comes from her experience of Nazi Germany. But her insistence that the state should not get involved in Little Rock is profoundly libertarian. For Arendt, the social is a realm of individual choice, where an individual white person’s desire not to interact with African Americans should not be interfered with by the state. Thus, while claiming to defend society from the state, Arendt effectively made a profoundly libertarian move later enunciated by Reagan and Thatcher: There is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families. Do not rely on the state, rely on yourself. As Fred Moten, Nasrin Olla, and others have argued, it is this radically circumscribed view of the political that sets the basis for the mix of neoconservatism and neoliberalism.
Some have defended the wisdom of Arendt’s suspicion of the state, including the Israeli state, but this antistatism again reveals her affinities with Cold War liberalism. I agree with Moyn that Cold War liberals pathologized these capacious emancipatory projects, unable to see anything but the threat of a descent into state terror. Arendt reads a global emancipatory politics through the prism of Nazi Germany, instead of reading Nazism through the lens of colonialism. Like Cold War liberals, Arendt fundamentally misreads global decolonization moments.
Among many self-identified liberals there was a profound skepticism about decolonization projects that do not proclaim fealty to freedom as defined by the United States. What was most threatening to Cold War liberalism was not nation-based independence movements (as long as they were loyal to the West), but capacious visions of emancipation that sought nonaligned and Pan-African and Pan-Arab movements, promoting a secular democracy against narrowly defined ethnic and national identities. The distrust of any nonaligned politics, whether it’s [Jawaharlal] Nehru or [Kwame] Nkrumah, is marked by the inability of Cold War liberals to imagine a Black or brown independent political thinker. From intellectuals to policy documents, the logic is: Even if these leaders are not communists, they’re going to be duped by the Soviets; nonalignment is understood as profoundly irrational if not sinister. If they’re not with the West, they’re secretly Soviet.
Rasberry: I want to read one passage from the chapter on Arendt. Toward the end, Moyn writes: “We must face squarely that Cold War liberals had a geographical morality. They offered Cold War libertarianism for the transatlantic ‘West,’ a Hegelian statism (with violence if necessary) in their Zionist politics, and a caustic skepticism about the fate of freedom in either form elsewhere, based on an implicitly hierarchical set of assumptions about the world’s people.”
This passage, and that chapter as a whole, convey the impression that Cold War liberalism failed at a crucial test in its history: the encounter with decolonization. But Moyn refers to earlier work by a number of scholars on liberalism and empire who argue that these exclusions were built into liberalism from the 19th century, as Uday Mehta, Bhikhu Parekh, and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work has demonstrated. I’m not sure what version of liberalism he wants to rehabilitate if those kinds of exclusions are built into the political theory.
Von Eschen: Are you saying we needed to hear more about emancipatory liberalism?
Rasberry: I guess it seems to me that the rhetorical thrust of the book as a whole has to do with a certain set of failures that Cold War liberals demonstrated at pivotal moments, and decolonization is maybe the most pivotal. Is it a failure? Liberalism has always preached white freedom — that’s not anything unique about Cold War liberalism. There is a kind of continuity between the 19th century and the mid-20th century that seems to surprise Moyn a bit. I’m not sure why we would have expected Cold War liberals to reckon with the postcolonial state and the onset of decolonization in the ways that Moyn hopes they might have.
Guilhot: There’s a problem here: If we have to move beyond Cold War liberalism, where do we have to move back to? What’s to be kept from that tradition? Can we weed out the aspects that are unacceptable? I think it’s a fair question to ask, not least because the book is an attempt at rescuing liberalism — something that some critics have failed to see. The book is an impassioned defense of liberalism despite all the coruscating critique on the surface.
What is clear to me is that there was no historical inevitability in the emergence of Cold War liberalism. The liberalism of someone such as Piero Gobetti in Italy, for instance, who was sympathetic to socialist movements and close to [Antonio] Gramsci, shows that the experience of fascism doesn’t have to generate a “liberalism of fear.” And Gobetti’s liberalism was critical of imperialism.
Von Eschen: What Nicolas just articulated is exactly what Moyn suggests is the kind of liberalism we really needed. Why weren’t liberals able to mount a defense of that rich socialist, secular social-welfare tradition in 1989? Moyn is describing a tradition of Cold War liberalism that undermined liberalism in the United States and globally and allowed this extreme neoliberalism to take over.
Guilhot: I didn’t mean to say we have to go back to the European liberalism of the 1920s, only that imperialism, as Vaughn was talking about, is not necessarily part of the package. There are instances in history where liberalism is distancing itself from imperialism. Think of J.A. Hobson, for instance — although his liberalism was unsavory in other ways.
Steinmetz-Jenkins: My guess would be that a defender of Cold War liberalism would want to separate it from neoliberalism, on the one hand, and from neoconservatism, on the other. But Moyn sees both as successors to Cold War liberalism.
Müller: What I found problematic is that you might come away from the book with the impression that we would be living in a completely different world if only Isaiah Berlin, in 1969, had given a big lecture for the BBC about how neoliberalism — which would not have been a term that made a lot of sense to people at that time — was a great danger to the welfare state. This is the core claim: Cold War liberals left the welfare state undefended, and the consequences are “catastrophic.” Nineteen seventy-one would have already been too late. As you may recall from the book, there’s a liberal who publishes a book in 1971 who ticks all the right boxes for Moyn: John Rawls. He’s a defender of the welfare state, a Hegelian of sorts, but he comes too late. Moyn really appears to be saying there was this window of opportunity to make the case for the welfare state and because the liberals didn’t make it, we live in the world we live in.
With all due respect, I find this implausible. Of course ideas have consequences. But in a strange way, even though the book rightly criticizes many post-Trump liberals, Moyn actually shares something with post-2016 instantiations of liberal thought, which is the idea that it’s all about liberalism, it’s all about what liberal elites do or don’t do.
The book is an impassioned defense of liberalism despite all the coruscating critique on the surface.
Sometimes it’s not just about what liberals do or don’t do. That’s what I think I find problematic about this underlying quasi-empirical, quasi-causal account.
And a footnote: By 1989, it’s way too late. By 1989, neoliberalism has triumphed. It has become the common sense for so many actors around the world. It’s no surprise that nobody then is mounting the defense of social democracy. The pivotal era, then, is perhaps the ‘60s and early ‘70s. But if you think about that, you would have to bring in the fact that Cold War liberals in the ‘60s are preoccupied with many other things — fighting against the New Left, student radicals, and so on. It’s not surprising that at that time their preoccupation is not with mounting a defense of the welfare state — they think that crazy millenarian young people who are way too enthusiastic about politics are messing everything up. There are lots of things one could say about that, but to be faithful to their history one would have to bring it up, as opposed to telling this sort of linear story from Cold War liberalism to neoliberalism that in many ways isn’t very historical.
Guilhot: Moyn speaks about “elective affinities” between neoliberalism and Cold War liberalism. But perhaps there is more than just affinities. The reason Cold War liberals had no way of resisting neoliberalism is that they shared with neoliberals the same intellectual DNA. The key here is the liquidation of historicism, which is the true foundation of Cold War liberalism. If you abandon historicism — the idea that social life can be shaped collectively and that history can register meaningful progress — you have a major problem. Social developments become anonymous events expressing a spontaneous order (or an ineffable providence), rather than political outcomes manifesting intentions, interests, and responsibilities.
In other words, you have a theory of social order that’s de facto a neoliberal theory. When Popper writes The Open Society and its Enemies, he has been reading [Friedrich] Hayek’s wartime articles very closely. You can see Hayek’s criticism of historicism flowing straight into Popper. He even gives it a bad name: If you really believe that history is a place where the capitalists are doing things, or the imperialists, or for that matter the elders of Zion, you believe in what Popper calls “a conspiracy theory of society.” So a prior feature of liberalism is not only excised, but it gets built into the concept of populism for decades. Cold War liberals have no defense against neoliberalism because they’re subscribing to the same program.
Steinmetz-Jenkins: Moyn refers to the “appealing option,” for liberals, of “Cold War restorationism after the Cold War.” And he says that “Vladmir Putin’s gift to both groups illegally invading Ukraine — though he helms a second-rate power relative to the Soviet threat of old — has given Cold War liberal breviaries new currency. So has the decision of liberals to follow Donald Trump, whom they otherwise hate, into an elective confrontation with China.”
Müller: I have a very different reading of the ‘90s than most scholars. I don’t think it was a period of liberal triumphalism. Just the opposite. It was a time of deep liberal insecurities. And the mechanism that Moyn rightly touches on is that, for some people, all of a sudden 9/11 is this moment of clarity and, perversely, of security, of being able to say: “At least now we know again who our great enemy is, and hence we also know who we are.” At the time, terror in the name of Islam was presented as a sort of third totalitarianism.
But obviously what Putin has done is real. We can’t ignore these realities and say, “Just because Cold War liberals made certain mistakes, it’s prima facie wrong to raise alarm bells about Russian autocracy, or, for that, about Trump as an aspiring autocrat.” Not all raising of alarm bells is alarmism, not all talk of fascism or even totalitarianism should casually be dismissed as Cold War hysteria.
Von Eschen: Ukraine should be defended against Putin’s criminal invasion. But what kind of support and at what cost to human lives? There was, and is, a Cold War liberal element — a military hawkish element, that Biden exemplifies — that immediately goes to the idea of victory, using language like “regime change,” which I think is dangerous. An imaginative emancipatory politics would have pursued any diplomacy possible; and the climate crisis and environmental concerns should be at the heart of this. These issues are not disconnected from the causes and consequences of Putin’s invasion. The invasion revealed (yet again) the world’s failure to wean itself off Russian oil. The war could have been an opportunity to pursue renewable energy on a grand scale. Instead it led to the opposite, a scramble to double down on fossil fuels and reinvestment in military industries.
Cold War liberalism’s antistatism extended to a strong suspicion of, indeed an undermining of, multinational institutions. What we see today is the inability of these weakened institutions to deal with the intertwined problems of war, climate catastrophe, global health challenges, and refugee crises. The crude ethnonationalism promoted by Putin in Russia, Orban in Hungary, Modi in India, and Trump in the United States, to name just a few, is, in part, a legacy of Cold War liberalism’s politics of fear — yet another turning inward and drawing crude lines of us versus them.
And this is the logic of liberals following Trump into, as you aptly put it, an elective confrontation with China. The United States and China have strong incentives to cooperate on the environment, health, and the economy. That so many past moments of diplomacy and goodwill have been overwhelmed by a politics of fear is symbolically and perhaps pathetically, but I think also poignantly, captured in the return of the last pandas in the United States to China. These international relationships of diplomacy were human, they were social, they were real. And they are being undone by a politics of fear. In its circumscribed notion of the political, a Cold War liberal politics of fear fails to even imagine diplomacy.
Guilhot: I agree that the current crisis is real. There’s no skirting this. The question becomes, what stance do you take? In 1992, when [Francis] Fukuyama turned his blockbuster article into a book, he said that the end of history is when “we cannot picture to ourselves a world that is essentially different from the present one, and at the same time better.” Clearly if that’s the advertisement for liberalism, today it fails miserably. You need an idea of the future. That’s the dead end of the liquidation of historicism: You end up in a place where there’s no future and no hope, essentially.
But precisely for that reason, nothing is more dangerous today than to revive a moribund liberalism of fear and survival under the pretext that it faces real challenges. It is a suicidal formula. And it won’t work either. We are in a very dire situation. And Moyn’s book is really a serious attempt, within the purview of liberalism, to save liberalism from itself.
Perhaps one thing I would add is that this can be done only by simultaneously reappraising the parallel tradition of populism. The term is loaded, but that is because, in a schizophrenic move, Cold War liberalism redescribed much of its own prior striving for progress and equality as a nemesis called “populism.” The liberalism-populism divide is another toxic legacy of Cold War liberalism.
Rasberry: I think Nicolas is quite right that Moyn’s book is in the final analysis a defense of liberalism against Cold War liberalism. But the perennial problem of liberalism is that it always has something to say about threats to an imagined Western world order. But it has nothing to say about, for instance, the insurgencies in the Sahel, for example. Or West Africa, where we see a resistance to French neocolonialism. What does liberalism of any form offer in that context? I only wish that Moyn had done more to help us reconstruct which elements of liberalism might be serviceable in these other contexts. Because these neocolonial contexts illustrate how liberalism always closes ranks with imperialism rather than support movements for freedom and democracy.