Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Book Reviews

Cold War Liberalism in the Courtroom

Reckoning with the Samuel Moyn’s post-Holocaust liberals.

Ohad Reiss-Sorokin

Cold War liberals in the dock; THR illustration/Shutterstock.

Hollywood rarely shops for film rights at academic presses. Yet if Samuel Moyn’s thought-provoking new book, Liberalism Against Itself, were adapted into a movie, I would recommend making it a courtroom drama.

Imagine Moyn, professor of law and history at Yale University, as the prosecutor, approaching the bench with a steady step, looking at the jury, and reading the opening statement. “Cold War liberalism,” he says, beginning with the main defendant, “was a catastrophe.” Then he takes a deep breath before naming the victim—“for liberalism.” The indictment is long and detailed: Cold War liberalism abandoned what Moyn describes as liberalism’s original goals of “perfectionism” and the “highest of life.” It made us suspicious of any progressive historical change, replaced promises of global freedom with a “West versus the Rest” narrative, and, finally, supported a harsh regime of self-discipline as a precondition for freedom. Its champions persisted in an attitude of skepticism, even paranoia, toward the state, despite living in “the most ambitious and interventionist and largest—as well as the most egalitarian and redistributive—liberal states that had ever existed.” Their ignorance, prosecutor Moyn argues, left welfare states without intellectual backing as they fell prey to the neoliberals of the late twentieth century, who sought to dismantle the social safety net and economic regulation. Furthermore, Cold War liberals failed to embrace the liberatory spirits of the postcolonial moment—one case, which Moyn will explicate later in his argument, being the glaring exception—and never adopted a global notion of freedom. Their failure, he tells the jury, left us with a deflated form of liberalism: a minimalist, suspicious philosophy that calls for marginal improvements rather than world-changing revolutions. This liberalism is not a philosophy “worth enthusiastic backing,” definitely not one to inspire the TikTok generation.

Moyn then calls the first group of defendants to the bench—all leading Cold War liberal intellectuals: Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, Jacob Talmon, and Karl Popper. He does not argue that the four conspired against liberalism (not exactly), yet these defendants knew each other, or at least knew of one another. Therefore, each can testify not only about his or her own misdeeds but also to their colleagues’ faults. In Liberalism Against Itself, each chapter carries the name of a single Cold War liberal. Yet the chapters mostly center on themes rather than individuals, a laudable choice for a genre whose practitioners—when discussing a cohort of thinkers—too often settle for a set of intellectual biographies in miniature at the expense of a coherent argument. In terms of the clarity and sharpness of its arguments, Liberalism Against Itself is second to none in the field.

The first group, we quickly learn, is accused of severing Cold War liberalism from its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal roots, thus undermining the pursuit of liberation through the state. Judith Shklar is first to testify. It was she who—in a previous phase, before joining the cadre of Cold War liberals—explained how Cold War liberalism turned its back on the Enlightenment’s legacy. Using Shklar’s early writings as evidence, Moyn argues that in the twentieth century, liberals adopted a less ambitious notion of freedom to replace the ideals of the Enlightenment. Convinced that mere survival was an impoverished standard by which “to judge how far societies had come and how far they had to go,” Enlightenment figures had proposed the ideal of “collective and personal self-creation.” But such expansive notions of self-fulfillment withered under Cold War liberalism, which settled instead for an individualism that lauded simply the “absence of restraint.”

Berlin, who knew Shklar at Harvard, testifies next. He rejected the theses of both Shklar and Talmon. He did not believe, as Talmon did, that the root of “Totalitarian Democracy” is found in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and thereby can be traced in a direct path from the French Revolution to the dictatorships of the twentieth century. On the contrary, Berlin cherished the Romantic belief that values are not discovered but created, and in that sense he was a worthy heir of the liberal intellectual giants of the past. Nevertheless, the prosecutor emphasizes, Berlin betrayed his role as an intellectual: He failed to defend the idea of self-determination or acknowledge its realization in the postwar era. His insistence on the primacy of “negative freedom”—that is, an individual acting without obstacles or constraints—became the core tenet of Cold War liberalism.

The prosecution continues. Popper’s actions are deemed even more heinous than those of Shklar, Talmon, and Berlin. Popper took away the future and, with it, hope. In his foray into political philosophy, he created the liberal Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which Moyn describes as an “anticanon,” a list of philosophers (e.g., Plato, Hegel, Marx) whose works were considered to be at the root of the contemporary disasters. To be sure, Popper was not the only liberal thinker to engage in such a wartime project—there were others, including Friedrich Hayek and Ernst Cassirer. Indeed, might we consider Moyn’s book the latest addition to this anticanonical tradition written from a different political point of view? But Popper’s attack was directed not only against individual thinkers but also against the notion of “historicism” itself, that is, the pursuit of freedom as a historical process. Disconnected from its roots in the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Hegel, and Marx, liberalism, the prosecutor emphasizes, could neither promise its followers a better future nor provide them with the tools to criticize their present.

Next called to the bench are three additional defendants: Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hannah Arendt, and Lionel Trilling. Each is under a different indictment: Himmelfarb for the discovery of Lord Acton and the Christianization of liberalism (which brought it closer to conservatism); Trilling for the canonization of Freud and the idealization of self-restraint; and Arendt—for lack of a better word—for racism. For the sake of brevity, I will focus only on Arendt’s indictment.

Although she is a strange fit with the other defendants—she was never a card-carrying liberal—Arendt shares the “geographical morality” of the Cold War liberals. Like them, she failed to recognize the liberatory potential of the postcolonial moment and, accordingly, did not extend her notion of freedom to accommodate the uprising nations. Cold War liberalism, in general, did not rise to the occasion. Its leading intellectuals did not embrace the nascent nations or consider them as equal partners. They closed themselves off, instead, and called for the defense of Western or Judeo-Christian values amid the upheavals of the postcolonial era. Arendt’s case is interesting to Moyn because of her short stint as a Zionist. Arendt, uncharacteristically, did support the Zionist cause for a short while before turning her back to it, complaining that its leaders adhered to the worst traditions of European state-building. Arendt’s quick U-turn on this question reveals the most fascinating aspect of Cold War liberalism: its support of a Zionist project that violated its core principles.

Cold War liberals did not treat the creation of the State of Israel the same way they approached the emergence of other rising nations; nor did they impose on it their signature suspicion of self-determination and the state. From their perspective, Israel was the only nation that was allowed to seek collective liberation through the state. This is a rare moment in book in which Moyn does not criticize others but, instead, provides a glimpse of his own liberal program. Moyn scolds Cold War liberalism for not being “Zionist enough,” that is, for not extending its support of state-centered liberation to other nations particularly in the North Atlantic and Global South.

Two names are suspiciously missing from the witness list, two of the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century: Friedrich Hayek and Michel Foucault. Hayek haunts Moyn’s book; his name pops up time and again in different contexts. Yet no chapter is dedicated to him. Hayek fits the profile of the book’s main thinkers almost perfectly. Born in Vienna in 1899, he was a member of the same generation. He took an interest in similar issues, such as the Enlightenment roots of modern totalitarianism or the legacy of Lord Acton, and throughout his career, he was a champion of liberalism. Moyn, however, prefers to maintain what I consider an artificial distinction between Cold War liberalism and neoliberalism; the former he considers well-meaning but ignorant and eventually damaging, while the latter is considered—in line with recent literature on the topic—downright malicious and self-serving. Moyn, then, misses the opportunity to reconsider the distinction between liberalism’s two branches and to look at Hayek as a possible bridge between them.

On the face of it, Foucault’s name may seem out of place in this context. Chronologically, he aligns with the younger Cold War liberals (he was born in 1926). It would be a big stretch even to call him a liberal. And his reception, especially among the English-speaking academic Left, positioned him in an intellectual lineage that could not have been more different from the one described by Moyn. On closer inspection, however, interesting similarities appear. From early in his career, Foucault was a critic of the Enlightenment; he, like Moyn’s protagonists, rejected “perfectionism” and notions about the “highest of life.” He refused to offer an all-encompassing vision for human liberation and insisted that all one can hope for is to demand not be governed in the specific way we are being governed. In his lectures on biopolitics, he even expressed some affinity with the ideas of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, Hayek, and their followers.

Hayek and Foucault, however, share two characteristics that set them apart from Moyn’s Cold War liberals. First, neither is of Jewish descent. Moyn may see this difference as trivial, but I believe it is worth mentioning. Second, unlike Moyn’s protagonists, the two did not ignore the welfare state; they were staunch critics of it. Both argued that the promise of liberation through the state, which Moyn celebrates, was, in practice, a cover for the accumulation and concentration of power by organs of the state at the expanse of individual freedoms. Although such power- and information-hungry state apparatuses did not result in a full-fledged totalitarian state, as Hayek and Foucault argued in different ways, they nevertheless stood in the way of human liberation and self-actualization. It should be pointed out that Moyn does not bother to argue for the welfare state; he says only that it is liberalism’s greatest achievement. The exclusion of Hayek, Foucault, and their like, then, enables him to have this discussion ex parte.

The prosecution rests its case, yet no one comes forward to plead for the Cold War liberals—which is to say that Moyn has written a powerful indictment but a weak historical work. He demonstrates little to no effort to empathize with the protagonists, understand their points of view, or even explain why they took what he believed were ideological wrong turns. It is possible that Moyn exempts himself from that task because he believes that their cases have been pleaded many times over. Yet his unsatisfactory attempt to come to terms with the common background of his protagonists reveals a devastating weakness in his argumentation.

Moyn is well aware that all of his protagonists were of Jewish descent, born between 1902 and 1928 either in Central or Eastern Europe or to immigrants from that part of the world. Moyn is right in asserting that there is nothing explicitly “Jewish” in Cold War liberalism, or that its champions style themselves as Jewish thinkers. But that is exactly the point. An essential component of the Nazi trauma was that nobody asked how people identified themselves before persecuting them as Jewish. Among other things, the Holocaust was the failure of the assimilation process of Jews in Western and Central European cultures, a clear case of liberation through the state. If the emancipation of the Jews in Europe was an essential aspect of the nineteenth-century liberalism that Moyn celebrates, its revocation in the twentieth century forced nothing less than a wholesale reconsideration of its viability as a political tradition. No wonder, then, that those who tried “to avoid” their Jewish backgrounds “as much as possible,” but nevertheless were treated as Jews, sought ways to push liberalism beyond those past promises it disastrously failed to deliver. The fear that underlies Cold War liberalism is not the only logical reaction to genocide and displacement, and it definitely cannot be justified by those horrific experiences—but Liberalism Against Itself provides no alternative account. Why did Cold War liberals—who all happened to be of Jewish descent—renounce liberalism’s past and misunderstand their historical present?

Moyn repeatedly accuses Cold War liberals of misrepresenting their social and political reality: They were blind to the rise of the welfare state, they did not see the potential of the postcolonial moment, and they “overreacted” to the Soviet threat. With these allegations, Moyn implicitly assumes that, in principle, the historical present should appear readily legible to the intellectual. It was Hegel, Popper’s bane and Moyn’s hero, who famously argued otherwise in Elements of the Philosophy of Right:

The thought of the world, it appears only at a time when actuality has gone through its formative process and attained its complete state.… When philosophy paints its gray in gray, a shape of life has grown old, and it cannot be rejuvenated, but only recognized…the owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk.

Moyn uses this same passage to scold John Rawls for arriving too late to the party and mounting the paradigmatic defense of a post–World War II redistributive state just when neoliberals manage to tear it apart. But if Hegel was right, intellectuals should be expected only to “paint [their] gray in gray” and come to terms with the previous form of life in its wake. Moyn’s Cold War liberals, therefore, might rightly be called “post-Holocaust liberals.” And Moyn himself? Perhaps he is the real Cold War liberal, the defender of the redistributive state that in some cases ceased to exist many decades ago.