The Book of Liberal Maladies
On Samuel Moyn's Cold War Liberalism
I’ve finally gotten around to reading Samuel Moyn’s Liberalism against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times. Moyn is a professor at Yale Law School, the author of several well-regarded books about human rights, and one of the chief critics from the left of the tendency he labels “tyrannophobia.” In short, that term refers to the tendency of liberals to hysterically overreact to the threat of Trump and right-wing populism, which he believes ultimately serves conservative ends, namely, the preservation of a defensive and limited politics of the status quo that cannot envision the kind of sweeping social reform that would prevent figures like Trump from emerging in the first place. Moyn believes that the frightfulness of Trump is a kind of an optical illusion created by looking at the world through the prism of “Cold War liberalism.” Liberalism Against Itself seeks to outline the features of this baleful tradition and attempt a critique. But critique is perhaps the wrong term: it is, in the law professor Moyn’s own words, a “case against” and it often reads more like a legal brief than a work of political theory or intellectual history: evidence feels mustered and presented to indict and convict, rather than to understand and interpret.
What are Moyns charges? That Cold war liberalism, with its emphasis on the protection of a crabbed and narrow notion of freedom, represents a betrayal of the liberal tradition, which was once committed, even if imperfectly, to a broader project of emancipation and Enlightenment. Faced with the threat of totalitarianism—for Moyn, a dubious category to begin with—Cold War liberals gave up on the possibility of progress. His language in the indictment is melodramatic: this “betrayal” has been a “catastrophe” for liberalism, which “disfigured” it and left it in “ruins.” It’s worth remarking here that in this choice of rhetoric he sounds very much like a lot of Cold War liberals he decries, who also attempt to portray our fall into a hellish modern condition as the result of an intellectual original sin: an excessive belief in human perfectibility that perversely lead to even worse forms of domination than it sought to originally overcome.
I can’t provide a comprehensive test all Moyn’s claims in the book: many of them deal with figures I’m not all that familiar with. I will focus on one thinker I do actually know a little about: Hannah Arendt. For more thorough look, I highly recommend David A. Bell’s review “The Anti-Liberal” in Liberties. But I must say I find Moyn’s contention that Cold War liberalism represents some profound break with the liberal tradition that came before to be pretty dubious on the face of it.
Determining exactly what constitutes the liberal tradition is difficult and coming up with an essence of liberalism is probably impossible; this is made doubly hard by the fact that the word has different connotations in America and Europe. But even a cursory look back at the liberals of the late 18th and 19th century, a time that according to Moyn had a bolder and more adventurous intellectual climate, shows far more continuity than rupture. Then the objects of liberal fear were the tyrannies produced by the French Revolution: first, the Terror, and then Bonaparte. Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël, writing in early part of the century, centered their political thought on the circumscription of popular sovereignty and the need to prevent unscrupulous characters from whipping up mobs; Constant sought an “innocuous little counterrevolution,” as he once wrote, which would “stop” and moderate the revolution. Like the Cold War liberals, his centrism was animated by a fear of extremes both left and right: he did not want a restoration of the ancien regime anymore than a return to Jacobin terror. In practice, his pragmatic defense of liberty could readily admit of undemocratic and authoritarian solutions, like backing the Fructidor coup as preferable to the Jacobin regime and then Napoleon, whom he once reviled, as preferable to return of the monarchist reactionaries.
Over and over, Moyn blames things on “Cold War liberalism” that just sound like things that could be laid at the feet of “liberalism:” “Far from being the device of human liberation, as liberals before the Cold War thought, the state had to be kept in check, lest it trample the liberties of a private sphere, even if this often was a euphemism for economic transaction.” But who thought that exactly? Some social liberals certainly, but who is to say they were more loyal to the tradition than the Cold War liberals? For his part, Constant’s political theory was explicitly designed with a mind to preserve an apolitical, private sphere against public encroachment. His notion of the private sphere included the right to commercial activity, which he thought was a check on the tendency of the state to centralize and control every aspect of individual life and would encourage people to pursue peaceful, cooperative activities rather than wars of conquest.
Moyn ascribes Cold War liberals an “anti-canon of hate,” the central figure of which is Rousseau, who was demonized as the progenitor of every sort of wild totalitarian fanaticism. But, once again, Constant anticipates this, albeit more elegantly and fairly than his 20th century imitators. His 1819 “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns” blames Rousseau and his epigones for trying to import the austere ideal of liberty held by ancient societies, which subordinated the individual entirely to the interests of the collectively-ruled polis, to modern times, where liberty means something very different, namely freedom to do as one wishes: “Our freedom must consist of peaceful enjoyment and private independence.” Any attempt to make liberty consist of more than that under modern conditions would simply introduce “an insufferable tyranny.” Granted, Constant did not abhor participation in democratic life, and had quite robust conception of civic duty, but he didn’t think it provided adequate feelings of satisfaction for modern people, who instead should cultivate their sensibilities in private, through their interests, romantic relationships, friendships, and personal reveries. The revolution taught Constant that freedom from politics was just as important as freedom to do politics, which is perhaps about as close to an essential definition of liberalism as one might get.
The appearance of the revolutionary mob might have been frightful to 19th century liberals, but the emergence of the masses portended even darker menaces. Writing in the middle of the century, Alexis de Tocqueville saw in democratic society the potential for the individual to be entirely swallowed up, free thought and opinion to be repressed by social conformity. New forms of coercion would emerge so insidious they would be barely recognized as such; the spread of equality would not create a sense of shared fraternity and lively political consociation, but loneliness, isolation, and political impotence. For Tocqueville these possibilities were not foregone conclusions, nor without the possibility of moderation and amelioration, but they were what could happen if democracy ran amok.
Moyn calls Tocqueville’s liberalism “visionary,” but in the 20th century those visions were interpreted as dark prophecies by liberals. In Democracy in America, he wrote, “I think then that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world: our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I am trying myself to choose an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it, but in vain; the old words “despotism” and “tyranny” are inappropriate: the thing itself is new; and since I cannot name it, I must attempt to define it.” Many of the thinkers Moyn classifies as Cold War liberals thought they had a name for it: “totalitarianism.” In fact, the entire edifice of anti-totalitarian thought Moyn is attempting to critique in his book owes more to the reading of Tocqueville as theorist of the negative consequences of mass society and atomization than probably any other thinker.
Moyn wants to represent himself as not a critic of liberalism per se but as the recoverer of a more salutary tradition. But he can’t ever really bring himself to do a full-throated defense of that tradition. This gets him tangled up in all kinds of knots. First, he must admit that prior to the Cold War there were unattractive parts of actually-existing liberalism: “Before the Cold War, liberalism largely served as an apologia for laissez-faire economic policy, and it was entangled in imperialist expansion and racist hierarchy around the world.” Then he writes that prior to the Cold War, liberalism was “emancipatory and futuristic.” But despite the best efforts of Keynes—a dedicated elitist, by the way—and some social liberals, prior to the Second World War, liberalism seemed to many Europeans like a dying ideology, a hoary product of the previous century that was just not up to the challenges new mass, industrial society; communism or fascism seemed like the wave of the future. (It’s worth noting too that the Golden Age of Keynesian liberalism was during the Cold War and championed by many Cold War liberals as the best possible bulwark against the Soviet Union.)
Moyn seems to want to speak in favor of social liberalism. But it also shares the reactive and restraining impulses that he wants to make characteristic of Cold War liberalism. As Steven Klein writes, social liberals in Germany like Max Weber “accepted the institutions of the welfare state and state intervention into the economy in order to ward off political challenges from the lower orders.” Their attempt to develop a socially-minded alternative to socialism is really not all that different from Schlesinger’s politics of the Vital Center or the Cold War liberal construction of the Great Society—just markedly less democratic.
What does Moyn actually like about liberalism that was lost during the Cold War? He mentions its notions of “free and equal self-creation” and “the modern perfectionism of creative agency” that came from liberalism’s encounter with romanticism. But these are features are difficult to square with a critique of Cold War liberalism’s abandonment of democracy and historical progress. The romantic turn in liberalism was in many ways brought about by disillusionment with and abandonment of revolutionary promise; it was often aristocratic in character, and in some cases, indicated a friendliness to political reaction. Stendhal’s romantic liberalism was openly elitist and he often pined for the days of Napoleon. Constant wanted a prosaic and dull public life to preserve the possibility of exquisite feeling in private life. As Stephen Holmes writes, “Only a basically deromanticized and soulless political system can provide the stable framework for the soul-storms and adventures of our unregulated, unpredictable private lives. To sentimentalize privacy, we must deeroticize publicity. This paradox lies at the heart of Constant’s liberalism: as the legal framework of social life becomes increasingly cold and impersonal, the chances for personal intimacy, emotion, and expressivism are markedly increased, even if happiness can never be politically guaranteed.”
Madame de Staël’s turn to German romanticism was brought on by her disillusionment with both the Revolution and Bonaparte’s regime. Moyn writes that prior to the Second World War, “Romanticism was a category in intellectual and literary history, not political thought.” This is just not really the case: the concept of romanticism was politicized from the start. Heinrich Heine’s 1835 On the Romantic School was a direct response to de Staël’s idealization of Germany in her D’Allemagne and was an attempt to educate a French readership on the reactionary-nationalist and provincial political context of the romantics. He called that movement “the mean, coarse, uncultured opposition to the most magnificent and venerable convictions that Germany has produced, namely, to the humanism, to the universal brotherhood of man, to the cosmopolitanism which our great minds, Lessing, Herder, Schiller, Goethe, Jean Paul…” In other words, the figures Heine associated with the German Enlightenment. Moyn writes, “The contrast [of Romanticism] with Enlightenment was far newer” but Heine already opposed enlightenment to the the Catholic medievalism of the romantics, whom he describes as “[attacking] with scorn and abuse the Protestant-rationalists, the party of enlightenment.”
All in all, Cold War liberalism is not so much a “betrayal” as perhaps an extreme and reductive emphasis on parts of the liberal tradition that took shape in the wake of the French revolution. But if it is extreme or brutal in some of its reductions, it is because the times were extreme and brutal. The monstrous tyrannies of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR and the Second World War were really that bad—they were far worse than the Terror and the Napoleonic wars. It makes sense that the body of thought they produced would be a bit traumatized. So it feels just uncharitable when Moyn says, “Cold War liberalism isn’t justified or even explained by its totalitarian foe—not because it oriented itself to the Soviet Union but because it overreacted to the threat the Soviets posed, with grievous consequences for local and global politics.”
As Moyn points out, many of the figures he talks about are Jews—or, as he puts it, they “performed their Jewish identities”—but he can barely bring himself to mention the Holocaust as a serious context. He speaks of the contradiction between Cold War liberals’ Zionism and their distrust of nationalism and state-building in other contexts, but doesn’t just point out the obvious reason: they were attracted to the idea of safety above all. That emphasis on safety above all else may indicate some serious intellectual limitations in their thought and suggest that it was an emotional reaction more than a coherent set of ideas, but taking that context into full account is the work of an intellectual historian, who should look at thought as an understandable body of responses to a particular historical situation, rather than polemicizing it as an “overreaction” or a “betrayal.” In the face of the horrors of the 20th century, rethinking the idea of inevitable historical progress seems like a sane rather than a neurotic response. Just a moment’s reflection reminds us that Cold War liberals came by their trepidations honestly, even if Moyn’s entire project is try to convince us they did not. Nor were they the only thinkers who came out of the era with similar reactions. There is, of course, Theodor Adorno’s famous update to Kant’s categorical imperative, that humanity should “arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.” That remark certainly resonates today.
Moyn even prefers the Cold War liberals qua Zionists, because, to quote a phrase, at least it’s an ethos: “In an age when it is common to condemn Zionism, perhaps the deepest problem with Cold War liberalism is that it wasn’t Zionist enough.” In the present moment, this sounds perverse. The bloodless liberal emphasis on mere safety and the pessimism about utopian schemes certainly looks a lot better right now than the martial virtues of Zionism. I understand that Moyn is writing metaphorically here, but that itself points to a problem with his entire intellectual approach: everything takes place entirely in the realm of discourse, it is a series of stances and what they imply about other stances, not about the real world. For whatever their vices, at least the Cold War liberals tried to face the reality of their awful age.
This bring me to my main objection to Moyn’s book: its chapter on Hannah Arendt, entitled “White Freedom.” Moyn admits that Arendt was not really a liberal at all, merely a fellow traveler of the Cold War liberals. He says she shares their “hatred” of Rousseau, but, of course, Arendt could be just as enthusiastic about the republics of antiquity as Jean-Jacques. But as the chapter title suggests the main problem with Arendt is that she was racist:
To a striking extent, Cold War liberals assumed freedom was what the late Tyler Stovall has called “white freedom,” almost hopelessly beleaguered in a world of colored despotism.7 Stovall argues persuasively that Adolf Hitler’s defeat in 1945 came to imply the eventual if still highly partial deracialization of world order and an end to hierarchical visions of humanity. But the early Cold War liberal theorists did not get the memorandum. Arendt epitomized this general known general fact about Cold War liberalism more overtly than its own best-known figures, since she advertised more clearly the neo-imperial and racist entanglements of the defense of Western freedom in the era that go entirely unmentioned in promotional accounts of Cold War liberalism even today.
According to Moyn, not only is Arendt racist, she is a “racialist” — implying not just casual prejudice, but an ideological commitment to racial categories:
Arendt was unapologetic when it came to imperialist and racist legacies. There is no need to dwell on the imperialist and racialist stereotypes of her treatments of empire and race-thinking in Origins of Totalitarianism; a generation of criticism has now revealed her to be more prone to repeat prevalent assumptions about non-Europeans (and even about Jews) than to anticipate the postcolonial charge that so-called totalitarianism was new only to those who disregarded or trivialized the sordid realities of colonial rule.
Moyn does his readers a grave disservice by not closely attending to the texts and instead haughtily gesturing to a mountain of secondary literature. It doesn’t take much interpretative work to see Arendt’s personal prejudices come through in her work, but what she actually thought about the politics of race is much more radical than Moyn wants us to think. Here’s what she writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
Racism may indeed carry out the doom of the Western world and, for that matter, of the whole of human civilization. When Russians have become Slavs, when Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into “white men,” as already for a disastrous spell all Germans became Aryans, then this change will itself signify the end of Western man. For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death.
What Arendt says about racism as a political ideology in Origins is that it’s transcendentally destructive: it threatens the very basis of shared humanity by dividing the world into inhuman hordes, which are driven by blind instincts of expansion and power. Moyn writes that “Arendt distinguished between ‘race-thinking‘ and the ‘racism’ that later nineteenth-century imperialism brought” but he tries to make too much of this distinction: what she is saying is that imperialism as a political project took ideas about race from the welter of opinions floating around Europe, some of them the work of evident crackpots and irresponsible dreamers, and turned them into a full-fledged ideology, a watertight system of justification for a form of brutal domination, which set the stage for the totalitarian catastrophe of 20th century Europe. The fact that racism functioning as an ideology for an existing system of violence is something qualitatively more pernicious than just an idea seems purely commonsensical. But, again, in Moyn’s discourse-world such important distinctions between the real and the imaginary are easily turned on their head.
Moyn charges that Arendt uncritically takes up categories from imperialist doctrine even while she seems to critique them. That may be so, but why is Arendt so particularly to blame for this, but pre-war Cold War liberalism, which, as Moyn admits, was part of the actual ruling apparatus of imperialist states, should be excused. In fact, it seems like Moyn wishes us to believe imperialism was, again, at least something:
There is no reason to idealize liberalism before the Cold War years in its own ambivalence toward a broader worldwide project of freedom. It was entangled from the start with global domination. After a generation’s work on “liberalism and empire,” we now know better than ever that it was compromised to the core by its civilizational self-conception and racialist parochialism. Liberal historicism, in parallel to Hegel’s own, had consigned the peoples of the world to a “waiting room” indefinitely. They could enter modernity only when educated for their rendezvous with it by white European liberals.
But Cold War liberalism did something far worse, aside from the ideological rationale it afforded one side in a global conflict where the worst was visited on postcolonial humanity. Having been global imperialists, many liberals lost global interest.
Let’s set aside for the moment that it’s just strange to write that an intellectual movement that even Moyn says reacted with such horror to developments in the decolonizing world and the Eastern bloc “lost global interest.” For me, this is the really odd statement: the turn inward of Cold War liberalism was somehow far worse than the pre-Cold War liberal justification of imperialism? Here Moyn’s fixation on the merely discursive becomes nearly nihilist: the real problem is not the violence—no, aside from that—the real problem is the insularity of vision.
If Hannah Arendt’s work is so infested with “racialist” and imperialist ideas as Moyn would have us believe why did the Marxist C.L.R. James, author of The Black Jacobins, whom Moyn praises as a counterpoint to Arendt, think so highly of it? James writes in the post-script to Modern Politics, “Hannah Arendt does not understand the economic basis of society. But for knowledge and insight into the totalitarian monsters and their relation to modern society, her book is incomparably the best that has appeared in the postwar world.”
Although Arendt is charged by Moyn with providing the category of totalitarianism to the arsenal of the Cold War liberals, he just ignores her extremely critical comments about U.S. imperialism or else contends she was worried about imperial decline rather than imperialism as such. But she clearly worried that the Cold War mentality in the United States could tend in an imperialist and even totalitarian direction, as she worried about McCarthyism being a proto-totalitarian phenomenon. In the preface to the Imperialism chapter in Origins this is what she said about the growth of the national security state:
The deadly danger of “invisible government” to the institutions of the “visible government” has often been pointed out; what is perhaps less well known is the intimate traditional connection between imperialist politics and rule by “invisible government” and secret agents. It is an error to believe that the creation of a net of secret services in this country after World War II was the answer to a direct threat to its national survival by the espionage network of Soviet Russia; the war had propelled the United States to the position of the greatest world power and it was this world power, rather than national existence, that was challenged by the revolutionary power of Moscow-directed communism.
Not exactly the sentiments of a hardened Cold Warrior, nor was her dismissal of the anti-communism of ex-communists. And she obviously didn’t really “overreact” to the threat of Soviet communism.
Nor can she be really indicted for "not defending the welfare state,” which she thought was the guarantor of political freedom in mass society:
All our experiences-as distinguished from theories and ideologies-tell us that the process of expropriation, which started with the rise of capitalism, does not stop with the expropriation of the means of production; only legal and political institutions that are independent of the economic forces and their automatism can control and check the inherently monstrous potentialities of this process. Such political controls seem to function best in the so-called "welfare states” whether they call themselves “socialist” or “capitalist".”
Moyn’s main brief against Arendt is her critique of Third Worldism and anti-colonial struggles, and her supposedly stuffy, “libertarian” emphasis on the Atlanticist tradition as displayed in On Revolution, and particularly, in On Violence. Moyn writes, “Arendt’s repudiation of decolonization in her time in On Violence was complete and unrelieved.” There are indefensibly foolish and prejudiced comments in the book, but decolonization as such is not really the target of the first part of the essay: it is the romanticization of violence by Western intellectuals. Her target is not the Algerians, nor the Vietnamese, nor even Frantz Fanon, whom she points out is much more nuanced and circumspect than many of his readers chose to notice: it is Sartre, a Frenchman, whose conception of political violence went from being means to liberation to a kind of affirmation of life, an end in itself, a species of liberatory act. Pointing out that there is something perhaps a little fascist about glorifying violence in this manner doesn’t make Arendt a boring prude as Moyn seems us to want to think.
Moyn totally passes over the entire point of the book, which is to separate the notion of violence from politcal power, which for Arendt always implies democratic notions of popular support and consent. If he had read it carefully he’d see that she can’t really be charged with taking a dim view of collective action. Her warning about the inability of violence to actually resolve political issues is worth re-reading today. Does anybody in their right mind not think that there is not something deeply politically impotent about the present expressions of violence in the world: whether we go from Russias’ invasion of Ukraine, to Hamas’s despairing and horrific attack on Israel, to Israel’s frenzied massacres in response?
This brings us to what what Moyn thinks is actually most praiseworthy about Arendt—her early commitment to Zionism, which he apparently believes shows that she once had some gumption, some real belief in collective projects:
Arendt’s political awakening had led her to embrace Zionism for a decade after 1933. She prized the activist political alternative it afforded Jews facing persecution. The political content of Arendt’s Zionism always remained vague. But she made a series of commitments through it that would not loom large in her later political thought and that she would specifically critique in the Cold War as others claimed postcolonial emancipation. In 1942, writing about Alfred Dreyfus’s plight, she observed that the only response to centuries of racist subordination was “the stern Jacobin concept of the nation.But no form of Jacobinism was viable for other peoples. She wrote favorably of armed Jewish self-defense even though it was associated with Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Irgun paramilitaries, whom she denounced as fascists.
Well, she called them that because they were.—
It’s hardly surprising that as a young woman fleeing from Nazi Germany there would be something appealing about Zionism to Arendt. It seemed at the time like the only authentic response to the menace of antisemitism. And she did favor the creation of a Jewish army to fight Hitler, which, again, is an understandable response. But, as Moyn notes, she grew disillusioned with Zionism. What he does not really give her credit for is that this rejection of Zionism came from a place of principled anti-fascism: she recognized in the gradual domination of the Revisionist vision within the Zionist project the same kind of chauvinistic nationalism, the same kind of racial consciousness, and the same kind of tribalism that came to trouble Europe.
Moyn’s quotation of Arendt’s comments on the Dreyfus Affair show how deeply and totally he misreads her. Here is the full quote as it appears in Origins of Totalitarianism:
There was only one basis on which Dreyfus could or should have been saved. The intrigues of a corrupt Parliament, the dry rot of a collapsing society, and the clergy’s lust for power should have been met squarely with the stern Jacobin concept of the nation based upon human rights—that republican view of communal life which asserts that (in the words of Clemenceau) by infringing on the rights of one you infringe on the rights of all. ”
Arendt is praising an older tradition of patriotism—Clemenceau’s Jacobinism—against the newer, racialized nationalisms of the late 19th century that formed the ideological underpinning of the anti-dreyfusards. This older patriotism was one based on the abstract concept of the rights of man and the citizen, not doctrines about “concrete” national essences:
The greatness of Clemenceau’s approach lies in the fact that it was not directed against a particular miscarriage of justice, but was based upon such “abstract” ideas as justice, liberty, and civic virtue. It was based, in short, on those very concepts which had formed the staple of old-time Jacobin patriotism and against which much mud and abuse had already been hurled.
For Arendt, ultimately the problem with Zionism is that it was not Jacobin: it itself was a chauvinistic, blood-and-soil, anti-dreyfusard form of nationalism—it mirrored far too much of the features of its ideological foes. In this insight, she was anticipated by Heine, who in his critique of romanticism from the first half of the 19th century, already was able to distinguish two forms of patriotism, one issuing from the revolution and one issuing from the reaction:
But it must not be supposed that the word "patriotism" means the same in Germany as in France. The patriotism of the French consists in this: the heart warms; through this warmth it expands; it enlarges so as to encompass with its all-embracing love, not only the nearest and dearest, but all France, all civilization. The patriotism, of the Germans, on the contrary, consists in narrowing and contracting the heart, just as leather! contracts in the cold; in hating foreigners; in ceasing to be European and cosmopolitan, and in adopting a narrow-minded and exclusive Germanism.
In her reading of Zionism’s origins and likely outcomes, Arendt has been vindicated by the scholarship of Zeev Sternhell, among others, and much more importantly, by events themselves. Arendt was able to see this and take a principled stance, something that Moyn apparently has difficulty understanding, since he quickly moves from Arendt back to talking about the Cold War liberals who did not have either the same powers of judgment or integrity. Unlike them, she did not make an exception for the Jews: she held them to the same, perhaps impossibly high, standard.
What Moyn dislikes about Arendt is precisely her greatest virtue in the present moment: her simultaneous rejection of Zionism and her skepticism about Western romanticization of post-colonial violence. Moyn’s position is exactly the opposite, and once again, actually quite perverse: he wants us to be a little more open to the positive potentials inherent in all post-colonial nationalisms, whether they be Zionist or anti-Zionist. In the past three months, his book has aged far worse than any of Arendt’s.