Cold War Redux?
Sam Moyn's Warnings From History
Writing in the May issue of Prospect, Yale professor Samuel Moyn issues a series of stern warnings about a possible return of the West to the Cold War consensus in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Here is the crux: “Putin’s archaic 19th-century bid for regional influence is undoubtedly grotesque; yet its most damaging legacy may be the self-righteous return to the nostrums of a failed western-style internationalism—one that seeks to defend our flawed democracies as they are, rather than trying to improve them.”
The piece draws together the related themes of Dr. Moyn’s work: his critique of the discourse of human rights and humanitarian intervention and his skeptical eye toward the rhetoric of antifascism and anti-totalitarianism. But, on the whole, the piece is less a focused argument than a lamentation or jeremiad: it’s a series of almost aphoristic condemnations and paradoxes, some of which are certainly just and true, but perhaps more truisms than vital truths at this point, while other themes are more dubious and underdeveloped. Perhaps this is just another effect of Twitter on our intellectual life. Moyn affects to disdain the vulgar moral posturing of the political class, he ends up producing his own version of it, albeit slier and in reverse. And while there’s nothing wrong with prophecy as such, but Moyn’s record as 21st-century prophet is, to this point, a little spotty.
From the beginning of the Trump presidency, Moyn has believed that the main issue is hysteria about tyranny rather than tyranny itself. In this picture, Trump was being inflated by the old, failed elites as a bigger threat to democracy than he actually was in order to cover up their own culpability for the crisis. While it’s undoubtedly true that much of the blame for Trump and related political pathologies falls at the feet of a political class that allowed the system to fester, this idea that Trump was merely some kind of chimera conjured up by elite anxiety and that his hostility to democracy was unlikely to take any real shape should be put to rest.
As farcical as the attempt may have been, Trump did in fact try to overturn the election and was willing to wield violence to that end. A significant section of the population still believes the election was stolen. This was just the sort of event that even the most hysterical proponents of “tyrannophobia,” crudely analogizing from the lessons of the 20th century, predicted might take place. It was a possibility that critics like Moyn repeatedly scoffed at. Putin, too, was minimized as a kind of paper tiger, more of a convenient liberal bogeyman than anything else. In the piece, Moyn still downplays the danger of Putin Russia’s, calling it a second-rate power, etc. Perhaps, but then all the more reason to defy it now. When the Russian tanks roll westward, what defence of you and me? The faculty of the Yale Law School? Professor Moyn’s Harvard J.D.? We may regret their rhetorical excesses or the analytical mistakes, but I think in all fairness we have to score one or maybe two points for the vulgar tyrannophobes.
Moyn sometimes seems above all engaged in a great rolling of his eyes at the language of his peers, a gesture that he wants to give the appurtenances of moral outrage. But whatever bombastic rhetoric happens to be attached to the deeds in question, I find it hard to conclude that the Ukrainians don’t deserve arms to defend themselves. And is it really so bad that the buffoonish Boris Johnson gets to play Churchill for the moment? I thought we mustn’t overrate the danger of such clownish figures just because they make grand proclamations. Here is a case where actions are more important than the discourse and I have not been convinced it is wrong or unduly dangerous to give the targets of a war of aggression the means to defend themselves. Is the biggest danger, the “most damaging legacy,” really the series of clichés or bromides that we are seeing paraded around again? I would think the most damaging legacy would be standing by and allowing the wholesale destruction of a nation in a naked war of aggression. And for what? To avoid being hypocrites? Just so we don’t get the grease of a gaudy politics on our sleeves?
Even if Moyn is correct, and there are negative consequences to allowing Cold War clichés to reign again, is that really an overriding reason not to forcibly decry dictatorship or war? Most generously conceived, Moyn’s world-picture is tragic: “it is regrettable that such-and-such terrible thing happens, but trying to do something to prevent it will just make things worse.” Many just see the tragedy in the opposite light: “Yes, bad things may issue from this, but allowing this to just happen while we stifle cries of outrage, just to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy, is unacceptable.” Moreover, the implication that if we could accurately foresee McCarthyism and the Cold War we should have been less enthusiastic antifascists seems a bit perverse, which bring me to my next point.
Another proposition of Moyn’s that seems dubious is the notion that anti-tyrant politics are necessarily stagnant, conservative, or even reactionary:
Those who cite Putin while crowing about the need to save “democracy” are in the end exhibiting a form of complacency. “Too many of those who prate about saving democracy are really interested in saving things as they were,” Roosevelt noted in 1938, in a decisive rebuke of our last five years of political discourse. “Democracy,” Roosevelt added, “should concern itself also with things as they ought to be.”
I totally agree, but it’s really quite striking to quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt here, America’s great defender of capital-D Democracy against fascism. But more to the point the association of antifascism and even Cold War liberalism necessarily the defense of the status quo seems just wrong. The historian Eric Rauchway has persuasively argued that Roosevelt’s conception of a New Deal was directly related to an antifascist politics: the experience of the Bonus Army and MacArthur’s suppression of it was a deeply formative experience for the future president. In France, the Popular Front was formed primarily as an antifascist coalition in response to the 1934 far-right rioting at the French national legislature. Among its first actions was a broad suite of social legislation, including the 40 hour week, France’s first paid vacations, collective bargaining rights, and a mandatory minimum wage. Was it an excess of antifascist enthusiasm that prevented the democracies from defending the Spanish Republic? No, it was the concern for the status quo, the timid realism about what could actually be accomplished, which set up a much worse conflagration later. There is a specifically antifascist tradition that has always been holistic and understood social reform to be an integral part of the defeat of dictatorships.
Even Cold War liberalism deserves more credit on this account, even if perhaps when its intentions are less pure. Moyn ignores the scholarship of Mary Dudziak and others that the United States need to project a beneficent image abroad a put pressure on politicians to enact Civil Rights legislation. In an earlier piece Moyn writes,
National Security Council Report 68 of 1950, for example, argued that the Cold War justified the reduction of nonmilitary expenditure by the “deferment of certain desirable programs,” including welfare. And while the New Deal was not dismantled, efforts to extend it — which still seemed a real possibility in Harry Truman’s early years in office — were denounced as pink tyranny, boosting state power at the expense of democracy. Casualties included attempts to create a national health care program. The consequences for American politics have been momentous.
The Red Scare attack on what existed of American social democracy is deplorable, but, as Landon Storrs has pointed out in her book The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left, we should remember it also included the purging of genuine antifascists from the ranks of the New Deal agencies. It’s not for nothing that that “premature antifascist” become a term of art in these purges. It’s a great historical scandal people who sympathized and flirted with fascism in the 1930s suddenly took on the role of democracy’s defenders in the 1950s. But also, despite that National Security Council Report, the Cold War-era saw giant growth in social expenditure with the Great Society programs. It may be well worth asking whether or not the living beneath the specter of war or tyranny is a morally acceptable price for the promise of an expanded welfare state, but it’s not quite right to conflate antifascism or even Cold War liberalism with neoliberalism.
Moyn sets himself up as a great critic of historical analogies—anything World War II or interwar is out—but he has his own favored analogy that guides his entire perspective: Cold War liberalism’s abandonment of the goals of a just society in favor of a “stable” one. But why should the Cold War, or this specific episode of the Cold War, be our only horizon? Do we really need to abandon the cause of democracy into the hands of cynics? If people say they want to “defend democracy,” of course, we should try to hold them to their word: make sure that includes substantive commitments, rather than just empty phrases. But the past abuse or even the internal mistakes of a noble tradition doesn’t entail abandoning it entirely. Even Moyn apparently knows that when he quotes F.D.R. favorably. So what’s really the point being made here?