$1 postage stamp displaying a candle rush lamp and the text "America's light fueled by truth and reason"

$1 Rush Lamp and Candle Holder invert reproduction (1979) | National Postal Museum Collection / Smithsonian Museum

Can liberalism still be saved? In a climate of war, rampant militarization, and a politically prescribed defense of freedom, the once-thought-dead worldview of Cold War liberalism is making a comeback. In his book Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Liberals and the Making of Our Times (Yale University Press, 2023), Samuel Moyn explores the intellectual genesis of this (historically) specific form of liberalism and diagnoses a consequential self-dissolution of central elements of the liberal intellectual tradition.

Liberalism once stood as the flagship of emancipation, drawing its theoretical strength from the critical spirit of the Enlightenment and representing a deeply optimistic perspective on history. However, as the twentieth century dawned, this liberalism began to deteriorate, ultimately undergoing a degeneration of its original political ideals, accompanied by the dramatic posturing of the Cold War era. Liberal thought dwindled to either neoliberal economic fantasies or neoconservative moralism. In Liberalism Against Itself, Moyn explores this decline of liberalism and the political landscape of the Cold War era through a series of historical and theoretical analyses. Influenced by the experience of National Socialism and the specter of Soviet communism, figures such as Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hannah Arendt, and Lionel Trilling endeavored to purge liberalism of its utopian, progressive, and even radical elements. These proponents of Cold War liberalism hollowed out its core, fostering a mindset that abandoned any emancipatory agenda and settled for defending existing freedoms through repressive means. What lingered was a policy driven by fear, elevating the safeguarding of the delicate democratic society against both internal and external threats to a paralyzing political doctrine.

Samuel Moyn, Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and History at Yale University, spoke about his latest book and the return of the Cold War with Julian Nicolai Hofmann, Yale Visiting Fellow and PhD candidate at the Department of Political Theory and History of Ideas at the Technical University of Darmstadt. The conversation took place in February 2024 in New Haven, Connecticut. 

Julian Nicolai Hofmann: The argumentation of your book centers around the term “Cold War liberalism.” This expression raises expectations and immediately evokes certain political and historical associations. How do you define it?

Samuel Moyn: I think of it, first and foremost, as a period concept. If there is anything new about the book, this label is not it—on the contrary, I mention that, while it was coined by enemies of the mid-century form of transatlantic liberalism, it has eventually been naturalized by admirers and scholars. The object of the book is not to define Cold War liberalism so much as to show how talking about liberalism is to be in a struggle over definitions, lineages, and sources. The main argument is that Cold War liberals insisted on changing liberalism to rescue it (I want to follow them in this regard if only to save liberalism from their clutches). As I illustrate, liberals turned on what earlier liberals had regarded as their emancipatory inspirations, such as the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and Romanticism, in favor of John Locke and an austere vision of personal freedom against state interference. The results were a Cold War liberalism that warned against ambition and hope; placed diremption (Entzweiung), tragedy, and sin at the heart of the human condition; and treated the lure of emancipation as the largest threat to freedom.

Hofmann: You describe the decline of liberalism into political pessimism and a defensive worldview. How did historical liberalism, originally conceived as an optimistic Enlightenment project, evolve into this precarious state?

Moyn: I think one obvious answer is that conservative liberals won out because their ideas were ideologically useful over the years. This is why I emphasize the much-disputed relation between Cold War liberalism and neoliberalism. They were not intellectually identical in their contents—though they overlapped much more than some scholars have conceded—but Cold War liberalism both paved the way for neoliberalism and provided a kind of window dressing in the past 40 years among liberals, who talked a lot about totalitarianism and its surrogates like Islamism or postmodernism but had nothing to say about neoliberalism in its era of predominance. This answer doesn’t, of course, explain why the Cold War liberals themselves adopted their views, and there I argue that they overlearned from experience. The middle of the twentieth century gave rise to a lot of phenomena to which pessimism is an intelligible response: the collapse of Weimar, the rise of National Socialism, and (other than from 1941–5) the awareness of the Soviet Union’s repressions. (It is an interesting fact that, though Jewish, few of the Cold War liberals responded at least explicitly to the Holocaust compared to these other phenomena.) To an extent, as Judith Shklar suggested in her first book, the transformation of liberalism was a long process, realizing a possibility present at the very start of the tradition and, therefore more a matter of shifting emphasis rather than outright mutation. But if the biggest factor in the crystallization of Cold War liberalism was overlearning from political disaster, the endurance of this hopeless form of liberalism through our time was caused by its rhetorical utility in a neoliberal age.

Hofmann: You explore the theoretical dismantling of liberalism through the portrayal of different authors, such as Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and Hannah Arendt. These thinkers, who participated in the Cold War discourse, represent heterogeneous disciplines and theoretical approaches. What criteria guided your selection of these authors, and do you believe they hold special significance within the context of the Cold War?

Moyn: You are right: my selection of characters has been central to the reception of the book. Not that there could have been a comprehensive account, but I knew from the first that the lectures on which the book is based were going to be illustrative. Mainly, I wanted to tell a story of the liquidation of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Romanticism, and Hegelianism from liberalism in favor of an Augustinian theology of sin and a psychoanalytic version of pessimism. For me, the several characters I chose were perfect to illustrate these moves. Shklar explicitly criticized the Cold War liberal liquidation of the Enlightenment, and Jacob Talmon participated in it, while casting the French Revolution as source of all our ills. Isaiah Berlin moved to rescue Romanticism from its Cold War anathematization, while Karl Popper vilified Hegelianism and ideologies of progress. Gertrude Himmelfarb participated in the cult of Lord Acton’s Augustinianism, and Lionel Trilling argued for the value of psychoanalysis to liberals. No doubt other arguments would suggest other casts of characters. Some have insisted, for example, that Reinhold Niebuhr is pivotal, though I substituted Himmelfarb on the grounds that he is overstudied and she has been entirely neglected. As a scholar interested in Jewish studies, her inclusion allowed for some detours into thinking about the Jewishness of Cold War liberalism. On the other hand, I tried to make clear this book is about early Cold War liberalism, and its claims do not exhaust the interest of the phenomenon, especially as it evolved into the 1960s, as I mention in the epilogue. I hope that this book will join others in a field that can adequately cover the entire tradition.

Hofmann: The inclusion of Hannah Arendt in this list has surprised some readers. Arendt currently enjoys significant popularity within the realm of progressive theories of democracy. Critics, on the other hand, emphasize the elitism, her criticism of democracy, or a racist component to her thought. Does Arendt have a particular significance in this double function within the canon of Cold War liberalism?

Moyn: I thought it would be interesting to include Arendt, a non-liberal thinker, because she cast light on Cold War liberals of her time and vice versa. I emphasize that she approximated the vision of the Western intellectual tradition that Cold War liberals achieved—with the emancipatory canon from the Enlightenment through Hegel absent or attacked in her thought—while also arguing more openly than they did that it was the fate of freedom to be beleaguered in North Atlantic climes. I admire Arendt, but it is also true that I have been more affected than some of my colleagues on the left by the antiracist turn in scholarship, which has applied with special force to her. And it was painful, when I was asked to give a lecture on Origins of Totalitarianism to Yale undergraduates a few years ago, to notice for the first time how despicable her comments about Jews in that text are. But the main thing is that, like so many people, my career has been transformed by those (such as Adom Getachew or Musab Younis) insisting that we globalize intellectual history and our understanding of the global circumstances of transatlantic thought. Unasked in the years of my own training was how traditions I was studying responded to the decolonization of the world, and I mainly wanted to show how problematic Arendt—epitomizing the view of Cold War liberals—is when placed in this context. That she would retain her place in our canon in the midst of its contemporary enlargement to include global liberals and radicals seems unlikely.

Hofmann: The crisis of liberal democracy has frequently been characterized as a decline in its core institutions and the erosion of its political foundations. (It appears that your analysis aims to delve deeper.) How does your book contribute to the ongoing discussions about the crisis of democracy?

Moyn: I side with those who consider the crisis of democracy to be actually a crisis of liberalism, and one liberalism has earned through self-imposed mistakes. Where I differ with the bitterest critics of liberalism is that I think liberalism deserves, or at least will get, another chance to redeem itself. And in this context, I wanted to revisit its most emancipatory possibilities and warn that their Cold War liquidation left liberalism truncated—indeed, this very liquidation not only paved the way for neoconservatism and neoliberalism but created a rhetoric for masking their devastating effects. I do not doubt that there are institutional stories to tell about the crisis of democracy today. Often, however, we are really dealing with a liberal fear of democracy, and the role is not the erosion of the power of institutions but their strengthening (consider the cases of central banks or supreme courts). I do not think electoral democracy is generally under threat, and indeed, the most sophisticated diagnosticians have been emphasizing how the Right works through democracy and law rather than scuttling either. But what is most at stake, I believe, is whether the masses of citizens feel that our form of liberal democracy is appealing and inspiring. Cold War liberalism tried to teach them that they should not have such expectations. In the long run, defending democracy by constantly repeating that it has been saved from its enemies does not leave it with enough friends.

Hofmann: The primary focus of Liberalism Against Itself is the formation of an American Cold War liberalism. Are there European variants of Cold War liberalism?

Moyn: Of course, and in fact I consciously strove to make this an Anglo-American book. Only two of my seven or eight main protagonists were born in the United States; Berlin and Popper were British for most of their careers, and at least half of my characters presented Britain, not the United States, as the ideal model of a free society. That said, my restriction of the book to an Anglo-American cast of characters (with an honorable exception for the Israeli Talmon, an Anglophile, in any event) came with certain costs. Nor, as some critics of the book have noted, is Frenchman Raymond Aron the most revealing example of a Cold War liberal from elsewhere. There were Cold War liberals everywhere, including West Germany. One of the more interesting contributions to the study of the history of liberalism lately is an apologetic study of a Filipino Cold War liberal by Lisandro Claudio, which indicates the value of globalizing the history of liberalism. Furthermore, many of these liberals across Western Europe and worldwide were part of the network created by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was fully global in its scope, even if scholars have so far not studied it this way.

Hofmann: Shifting focus to the European intellectual Left, a noticeable political transformation has occurred since the 1960s. Like their political opponents, prominent left-wing thinkers have criticized the welfare state, strongly opposed statism, and expressed concerns about totalitarian threats. To pose a provocative question: Could there be a left-wing version of Cold War liberalism, which, avant la lettre, contributed to the detrimental reinterpretation of the liberal project?

Moyn: I would put it differently by saying that neoliberalism could take on progressive hues. Nancy Fraser has emphasized this at the ideological level, and scholars like Stephanie Mudge have revealed how momentously left-wing parties in Western Europe evolved, to the point of abandoning their working-class allegiances in a neoliberal age. And we are certainly living with the consequences today. Where I would see an important, if secondary, role for Cold War liberalism is at the level of rhetoric—as indicated above, many liberals on the left have preferred to mask their accommodations to neoliberal orders in Cold War liberal rhetoric—as well as in foreign policy. There, the debate among Western commentators (most definitely including progressives) has been caught in a Cold War liberal frame of confronting enemies, after which the main choice is between the containment strategies that most of the characters in my book chose and the more aggressive “rollback” strategies that prevailed later.

Hofmann: Let’s revisit the concept of liberalism: it seems that you are proposing the revival of an earlier, less corrupted form of liberalism. Can we build on liberal ideals of the past, even though the intellectual, political, and social foundations have completely changed? Is it possible to reclaim a socially conscious, non-repressive form of liberalism that was historically linked to conditions that no longer seem to exist?

Moyn: I do not believe liberalism was ever pure, and it is very important to clarify that, just as my critique of Cold War liberalism is of mid-century liberal theory, so my reclamation of prior liberalism is of aspects of liberal theory. Even then, such prior liberal theory is not treated as a panacea, just as a new starting point to craft another new liberalism. At the practical level, I do not think an emancipatory liberalism has ever existed, but this does not mean there are not more emancipatory elements to reclaim for our time and more problematic ones to contain or repudiate. Of course, intellectual life, as well as political hope, always has to be bound to the conditions of future possibility, which are never infinite and always specific. But instead of a grim determinism, which I follow Cold War liberals in rejecting, there is some intellectual freedom to assess options and push towards one rather than another. It is in this space that my book is modestly operating. I do think that certain early nineteenth-century authors, like Giuseppe Mazzini, John Stuart Mill, and especially Alexis de Tocqueville, authorize hope for a more perfectionist and progressive liberalism, just as later nineteenth-century liberals remind us that liberalism was never just a libertarian ideology of laissez-faire. Otherwise, we are mostly on our own in crafting a liberalism no one has yet produced.

Hofmann: Many current contributions center around the question of whether liberalism survives or is already lost. Proponents of post-liberal political thought, like Patrick Deneen, Adrian Pabst, and John Gray, have seen liberalism’s crisis as an opportunity for systematic transcendence. What aspects of this viewpoint do you find problematic, and which arguments resonate with you?

Moyn: I agree with Berlin, who once remarked that liberalism’s enemies are sometimes more interesting to study than its friends. But contemporary critics of liberalism, aside from rehashing old counterrevolutionary themes, have generally operated with a very impoverished understanding of the intellectual history of liberalism. This is even true of Gray, once a great scholar of the history of liberalism. Nor is this just an academic debate, because if we are left with a straw man conception of liberalism, it will be easy to reject. That said, it is a good thing to move beyond an age in which liberalism was taken for granted theoretically, even as that theory mainly served as a smokescreen for the ascendancy of neoliberalism. And it was my whole purpose to exploit this moment of deserved critique to push liberals in a direction that I hoped would improve their choices in the future. It would be a great irony if Patrick Deneen and others were remembered for saving liberalism, rather than trashing it, but it is still the best hope.

Hofmann: Finally, it’s apparent that Cold War liberalism is resurfacing in contemporary political discourse. However, your book suggests that Cold War liberalism never truly disappeared but remained ingrained in the political framework of liberal democracies. This is evident today in how foreign threats are handled and how populism is addressed. Looking ahead, what prospects for political change do you see in the long term?

Moyn: Correct. This has been notably true in Germany, where the Ukraine war and the threat of the Alternative für Deutschland are stark reminders that Cold War liberal habits of mind never disappeared from its one-time birthplaces. As you implied earlier, ultimately, ideas about liberalism will play far less a role than the concrete structural realities that have been assembled and that are very difficult to renovate. That said, ideas helped make those structural realities possible—or at least legitimated them. And ideas can help select among possibilities within the constraints of our present. I believe that resurrecting liberal optimism from the grave in which Cold War liberalism buried it can, in this sense, play a double role. For one thing, it can give us some of the content for a liberalism worthy of construction. But it also can slowly help envision futures that are appealing rather than horrifying, for a liberalism bereft of hope in progress is unlikely to allow for liberalism of any kind to survive.

This interview was first published in German by theorieblog, where it appeared as a two-part interview on April 9 and April 10, 2024.