In Defense of Cold War Liberalism

Berlin school children with rescued school books from bombed school buildings, in the devastated streets of Berlin in 1945. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Although it has received considerable attention in recent years, liberalism still falls under what philosophers call “essentially contested concepts.” The term is widely regarded as meaningful, yet the people who use it don’t agree on its meaning. As a result, discussions about liberalism—at least among scholars and commentators of political thought—seem at once inescapable and interminable. 

Liberalism Against Itself, by the Yale Law professor Samuel Moyn, tries to both clarify this debate and advance a proposal for moving beyond familiar positions. Focusing on the late 1940s and early 1950s, Moyn contends that liberalism underwent a fundamental redefinition. Once an optimistic faith in the continual amelioration of the human condition, especially by means of a benevolent government, liberalism was reconceived in the aftermath of WWII as a theory of human and political limitation. Rather than a vision of a better world, liberalism became a stern “no” to aspirations beyond the social order required to preserve individual freedom. This shift was a disaster in Moyn’s telling, one that crippled liberalism for generations to come.

Moyn describes this as “Cold War liberalism.” He admits that the label was popularized by critics on the New Left about a decade later, and that none of the main characters he presents in the book adopted it for themselves. But even if the name was not used, Moyn contends that it designates a distinctive and influential liberal sensibility. 

In politics, Cold War liberals placed themselves in the “vital center,” opposing totalitarianism on both the left and right. In culture, they gravitated toward religious teachings that emphasized the omnipresence of sin. And in scholarship, they constructed an “anti-canon” of thinkers who tempted Western societies into the illusion that they could eliminate the perennial evils of poverty, war, and injustice. Cold War liberals most notably depicted past thinkers like Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx as utopians, statists, and historical determinists who effectively justified—whether they intended to do so or not—immense suffering inflicted by ideological fanatics.

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