Samuel Moyn on the Abandonment of Revolutionary Liberalism

Samuel Moyn argues that Cold War liberals abandoned liberalism's revolutionary promise.

Samuel Moyn on the Abandonment of Revolutionary Liberalism

As Alan Ryan reminds us in his gigantic The Making of Modern Liberalism it is in many ways more sensible to talk about a family of liberalisms than to suggest there is one, singular liberal doctrine which is the same everywhere and always. Liberals in theory and in practice have endorsed capitalism and socialism, been pessimists and optimists, hawks and pacifists, and everything in between. For those of us who identify as liberals, many liberals of other formulations will seem deeply unattractive—a bit like that family member you have to spend time with at reunions even though you wonder how you can possibly be related.

I felt this way a lot while reading Samuel Moyn’s excellent new book Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times. Moyn has been a sagacious figure in American letters since the publication of his pioneering The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. This early book argued that, contrary to the triumphalist discourse of rights so ubiquitous throughout the 1990s and 2000s, in fact the political emphasis on universal rights was very modern and in many ways constituted a cautious withdrawal from the more ambitious dreams of liberals and socialists past. This theme resurfaced in Moyn’s spiritual sequel Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World. Here Moyn stressed how rights became popular as a way of framing a very minimal standard of obligations states and international organizations assumed towards their citizens (and others). This was a retreat from the ambitions of earlier radicals who led the charge in demanding ever higher standards of equality, dignity, and freedom for all. In Humane Moyn makes a similar set of charges, but along different lines: chastising proponents of international humanitarian law for trying to humanize war while giving up on the aspiration for peace. Indeed, some neoconservatives and liberal hawks even appealed to the notion of a humane war to license a never ending series of military interventions and adventurism.

I’ve been an admirer of Moyn’s work ever since I read The Last Utopia while completing my graduate work in international human rights law. His frustrating counter-histories deflated our comforting hagiographies; but in doing so they opened up entirely new ways of seeing the history of the 20th century. Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times is his crowning achievement so far. It is distinct in Moyn’s oeuvre for providing the clearest ideological explanation for all the retreats and concessions traced in his other books: that liberalism traded its once radical soul for victory in the Cold War. It did so by internalizing a host of conservative ideas that reduced liberalism’s world-historical ambition to secure liberty, equality, and fraternity for all to a thin shell of what it once was. It’s a startling thesis, and only a historian and scholar as principled and original as Moyn could make it convincingly.

The history of Cold War liberalism

Many of liberalism’s central features before the Cold War came—above all its perfectionism and its progressivism—are worth a second look. Perfectionists offer a controversial public commitment to the highest life. As opposed to thinking of liberalism as neutral among competing faiths, before the Cold War many liberals counseled creative and empowered free action as the highest prize for individuals, groups, and humanity. Progressivism, meanwhile, casts history as a forum of opportunity for the achievement and exercise of that ability to act creatively in the world. (The intellectual sin that the Cold War liberal Karl Popper dubbed “historicism,” which treats history as if it obeyed lawlike processes, is a version of progressivism—but a deviant one.) Equally important, across the nineteenth century, liberals were forced to accept the coming of democratic self-government and understood that liberalism’s practical associations with market freedom required a complete overhaul. Before Cold War liberalism, efforts to grapple with those challenges eventually helped make universal suffrage credible, and the mid-twentieth century welfare state conceivable. Cold War liberals changed all that. -Samuel Moyn, Liberalism Against Itself

Moyn reminds us that liberalism entered the world as a revolutionary fighting creed—one that was deeply flawed, snobbish in its protagonists, and often selective in the application of its principles. Nevertheless from Locke onwards liberals were committed to overthrowing the ancien régimes of Europe, advancing arguments that—contra the claims of conservatives from Robert Filmer to Edmund Burke—all people were morally equal and entitled to be treated as such by their governments. This was an explosive position, and understood to be so, with Burke lamenting how the “new conquering empire of light and reason” was advancing everywhere and destroying “all the pleasing illusions” that made subordination easier.

Not just an empty revolutionary credo, liberalism inspired genuine revolutions in the United States, France, and Haiti before sweeping Europe in the 19th century. And for many liberals this was just the beginning; Thomas Paine’s dictum that we had it in our power to make the world anew and better was taken as a sign of hope rather than reservation. Figures like the early Hegel and J.S. Mill hypothesized that new projects of empowerment and emancipation would follow the successful experiments of the past, with Mill even presenting the first fully fledged account of liberal socialism.

How things change. Moyn points out that many liberals were both hostile to, and even embarrassed by socialism when it emerged as a rival for political support in the mid-19th century. This was in no small part because, while liberals had long experience confronting conservatives, they were less prepared to deal with another modernist doctrine which promised to carry on the Enlightenment spirit of liberalism but take it to its more radical conclusions. With the defeat of the far right in the Second World War, liberals confronted both authoritarian and democratic socialist movements which claimed to be more consistent partisans of progress than liberalism itself. At the level of practical politics, the early to mid-century was a time of great experimentation and hope for many liberal politicians. Pushed leftwards by the popularity of socialism, iconic figures like Franklin Roosevelt, William Beveridge, and Willy Brandt spearheaded the creation of extensive welfare states across many developed states. Welfarism sought to combine support for liberal political institutions with a fairer redistribution of economic goods. They were in many ways imperfect, but as Moyn reminds us they came closer than most any other alternative to realizing the more ambitious liberal (and for that matter socialist) dream of social order characterized by freedom and equality for all.

Ironically a very different attitude prevailed amongst the leading liberal intellectuals and philosophers, who responded to the Cold War with great pessimism and even fear. Surveying the tyranny wrought by authoritarian utopianism, for many Cold War liberals the root of the problem lay in such quintessentially Enlightenment convictions as the belief in unending progress. For them, limitless faith in progress achievable by the state was a tool used to disastrous effect by Bolsheviks and fascists. Consequently, faith in progress had to give way to resignation in the face of immutable imperfection.

Much of Moyn’s book is a chronicle of these transitions in the thought and writings of Cold War liberals like Isaiah Berlin and Judith Sklar, along with fellow travelers like Hannah Arendt. Horrified by the rise of Nazi and Stalinist authoritarianism, Cold War liberals largely came to embrace the pessimistic view of human nature and ordinary people that had once been the purview of conservatism in its own epic battle with liberal optimism. Many of the authors Moyn discusses experienced a pronounced sense of disenchantment with the world, though some never grew comfortable settling into their role as skeptics and moderates.

Moyn points out how Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated “Two Concepts of Liberty” came to be taken as a seminal work of Cold War liberalism. In his essay Berlin distinguishes between negative and positive liberty, and argues that while each has its place any attempt to secure positive liberty for all is inherently dangerous. The safer bet was to rest content with securing negative liberty for all. While Berlin sometimes acknowledged that the safer bet wasn’t necessarily the smarter or just one, the anxious bifurcation he drew was sufficiently powerful to bulldoze through his personal ambivalences and provide enduring ammunition for those who believed the liberal state should be as minimal as possible.

Less admirable was Karl Popper, whose gigantic The Open Society and Its Enemies became the Bible of those opposed to notions of historical progress. Popper was of course a tremendous philosopher of science, and thought he’d detected in figures from Plato to Hegel and Marx a resolutely anti-scientific attitude which ended in calls for a closed society modeled on a utopian ideal. Hegel and Marx were especially dangerous for putting forward pseudo-scientific theories of history which implied that the arc of the moral universe was long, but it would bend inexorably towards utopian emancipation. Moyn acknowledges how Popper was right to criticize the more vulgar followers of Hegel and Marx, who could put forward teleological views of their philosophers of history. But he chastises the sparsity of Popper’s knowledge of either thinker, pointing out that “the second volume of The Open Society, on Hegel and Marx, relied on the spottiest possible knowledge of their works.” A deeper knowledge would have revealed how little either Hegel or Marx in their mature works resembled the vulgar historicists Popper painted them as. Popper’s caricatures of Hegel and Marx inhibited thoughtful liberals from drawing profitably on their insights. More importantly Moyn points out how Popper’s relentless attacks on historicism eventually led liberals to abandon more down to earth hopes in human progress.

Another liberalism?

One of the most striking paradoxes in Moyn’s story is how Cold War liberalism became intellectually hegemonic at the very moment when liberal politicians and activists, often cooperating with and learning from democratic socialists, were building the very welfare states that constituted the most ambitious attempt yet to achieve freedom and equality for all. In Moyn’s telling this left the welfare state with shockingly thin intellectual defenses when conservatives like Thatcher and Reagan attacked it, often deploying very similar arguments to those the Cold War liberals themselves had advanced. The result was that liberalism’s crowning achievement was halted, and in some places even rolled back, with minimal outcry or even the tacit support of the very figures who should have rushed to its defense.

This is where I think Moyn’s story needs to be complemented with the flip side of the coin. The specter haunting Liberalism Against Itself, and I’d argue much of his work as a whole, is the specter of liberal egalitarianism. This liberal tradition, going back to Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and J.S. Mill embodies precisely the ambitious progressive spirit and intellectual rigor that Moyn thinks was essential to liberalism in its vital years and which it lost through its mutation into Cold War liberalism. But this isn’t entirely accurate. With the publication of Rawls’s Theory of Justice in 1971, liberal egalitarianism blossomed intellectually even as the prospects of realizing its ambitions in practice wilted. What’s more, Moyn is well aware of this fact, even if he acknowledges the points begrudgingly:

The more venturesome liberals of the 1960s understood that the Cold War competition required not just stigmatizing despotism abroad, but providing fairness at home. John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, published in 1971, is a fruit of this impulse. For all its powerful and telling incorporation of Cold War liberalism (notably what Rawls called the priority of liberty over other ends), the book was most remarkable in its defense of some modicum of distributional egalitarianism. But the greatest historical irony of Rawls’ innovative liberalism compounded that of Cold War liberalism itself. Redressing the earlier mismatch between the libertarianism of Cold War thought and the emergence of the welfare state, A Theory of Justice was only a prelude to a new mismatch, in which egalitarian justice was defended in principle while neoliberal inequality ascended in practice.

The question then becomes how this mismatch occurred. Why did liberal egalitarianism reach new levels of sophistication, depth and egalitarian ambition in the acclaimed writings of Rawls, Sen, Dworkin, Nussbaum, Mills, Benhabib, Anderson and others and yet fail so dismally to establish itself in politics? And here I think the method of intellectual genealogy provided by Moyn runs into its explanatory limitations and must be complemented by many of the very authors he encourages us to explore. Namely Hegel and Marx. From a purely ideational standpoint liberal egalitarianism remains an extraordinarily attractive ideal; especially in its liberal socialist forms. But offering strong historical and normative arguments for liberal egalitarianism needs to be aligned with a cold awareness of how power and domination operates within modern capitalism. Sometimes the operation of power and domination assume subtle forms by instantiating ideological and cognitive barriers to conceiving new forms of social life, as Tony Smith stresses in his excellent Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism. But sometimes it is far more overt. Social scientists such as Martin Gilens and Thomas Piketty have stressed how there is broad and even majority support for various egalitarian policies. But these have little likelihood of being implemented in a political context where gratifying the interests of the rich quantifiably matter so much more to lawmakers.

Moyn’s book ends with some of his most thoughtful ruminations. He observes how liberalism has retreated across much of the world as its Cold War mutation came to be distrusted, despaired and, and eventually despised. Rather than provoking reflection of what led to this point, many Cold War liberals doubled down on their doctrine by insisting that sooner or later things must go back to the status quo, ergo obviating any need to once more creatively reinvent liberalism through recommitting ourselves to its most inspiring principles. Moyn ends his book with the imperative that “the task for liberals in our time is to imagine a form of liberalism that is altogether original. If they don’t it does not seem likely that they will see their creed survive—and anyway survival is not good enough.” He is absolutely right. The most destructive influence of Cold War liberalism is precisely convincing liberals that survival was good enough—never mind inequality, plutocratic rule, environmental decay and so much more. But the hope inspiring liberal egalitarianism would be good enough. It is worthy not only of survival, but loyalty, and that is far more than Cold War liberalism can say for itself.

Featured Image is The Burning of the Throne of Louis Philippe, by Hermann Raunheim