When the interpretation of history becomes divorced from the facts of history, frightening political prescriptions capable of upending society are likely to follow. Samuel Moyn’s recently published Liberalism Against Itself is one such case; a historiographical recasting that fails to engage with the subjects of its critique. His work is a harsh attack on the skeptical moderation of Cold War liberalism and a paean of praise for revolutionary utopianism. In an age dominated by the looming threat of political extremism, this alone would be enough to toss any book into the trash heap of kooky ideas. But Moyn supports his position with a historical narrative so hopelessly one-sided, so detached from the fundamental facts of the era he is studying, one must wonder how such a book could meet the standards of Yale University Press. Nonetheless, the book has been taken seriously and so we few friends of moderation must take it seriously as well. 

The crux of Moyn’s argument is that Cold War liberalism essentially abandoned the major precepts of liberalism itself: historical progress, reason, and universal freedom and equality. Though Moyn may think himself intellectually intrepid for such an analysis, this view is not even remotely new, even having been adopted by left-wing progressives since at least the 1960s. In some ways, the critics Moyn imbibed, implicitly or explicitly, do have a point: Cold War Liberalism is a clear departure from the liberalism of J.S. Mill or the French Revolution. Moyn takes for granted that Cold War liberalism’s departure from earlier iterations of Liberalism is a downgrade, when in reality it is an improvement. 

Cold War liberalism, defined by such thinkers and statesmen as Isiah Berlin, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, emerged from liberalism’s confrontation with the immense evil of modern tyranny. This confrontation forced such liberals to recognize that, as ardently as we might hope, the story of human history is not always positive. As a result, Cold War liberals took more seriously than other generations the conservative critiques of liberalism. The product of these ideological revisions is a liberalism aware of its own faults and all the better for it. To make this case for Cold War liberalism, we need to examine Moyn’s main critique in detail – revealing it to be the trite whining of a revolutionary, unhappy that his faction lost out in the intellectual wars of the Twentieth Century. 

Moyn’s contention that Cold War liberals discarded a Hegelian vision of unending progress in favor of a dour pessimism about the world is undeniably true. It is also true that in the process they abandoned the idea of universal human emancipation – the belief that, through reform and revolution, we can at last all be totally free. Moyn understands well enough the reason for this shift: Having witnessed the horrors of communism and fascism, “expectant hope now felt naïve, and the aspiration to universal freedom and equality was denounced as a pretext for repression and violence. In response, the brand of theory that Cold War liberals invented … far from being emancipating insisted on strict limits to human possibility.” All of this is true, but Moyn mistakenly sees this as Cold War Liberals giving up hope. In truth, they were simply facing reality. 

Of the political movements motivated by utopian visions that gained power between the French Revolution and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the consummate theme is failure; failure not only to liberate mankind, but also failure in the less ambitious goal of creating societies that were not undeniably oppressive. It is for this reason that Alexis De Tocqueville (whom Moyn repeatably and bizarrely portrays as some sort of emancipatory utopian) once declared: “Revolution and liberty are two words it is necessary to hold carefully apart.” The Cold War liberals came to understand this sad truth better than their predecessors and in so doing improved upon liberalism – allowing it to form into a naturally moderate ideology capable of withstanding the tyranny of the far right and far left. 

All of this Moyn reads as sudden and tragic abandonment of Enlightenment values. Again, Moyn is correct in a sense – the Cold War liberals were less enthusiastic about the universal power of reason. But then, what is the place for supreme rationality in a tragically fallen, chaotic, and unpredictable world? In other respects, however, this charge reveals Moyn’s true ignorance of the history of liberalism itself. Moyn sees liberalism as a vision of the ideal life – human liberation through ardent the use of reason – and as being revolutionary in nature. A closer reading of original sources (such as Tocqueville) could have disabused him of this notion. Failing that, I would recommend that Moyn more carefully read Helena Rosenblatt’s magisterial history of liberal thought, which shows that, far from being a radical ideology, liberalism first began to take shape among French reformers wishing to offset the negative effects of their recent revolution. If he wished to dig still deeper, he could find the roots of liberalism in the British Whigs, who wished to create an approach to politics that staved off constant warfare about the meaning of human life.   

Ultimately, Moyn’s attack on the prudence and moderation of Cold War Liberalism simply sets the stage for what he believes to be its greatest offense: by abandoning the hopes of the Enlightenment, Cold War liberals robbed liberalism of its moral value, thus setting back the march of human progress. This is simply false. Moyn’s attack rests almost exclusively on an examination of the philosophers of post-war liberalism. However, such an approach misses important details since no political idea exists in a pure vacuum and, when introduced into the political realm, such ideologies tend to assume a slightly different flavor. 

Far from abandoning the cause of human freedom, the politics of Cold War liberals clearly show their commitment to leaving behind a better world for future generations. Men such as Adlai Stevenson, Harry Truman, and Scoop Jackson sought to build upon the economic and foreign policy of Franklin Roosevelt’s liberty-oriented liberalism. If anything, the triumph of Cold War Democrats over Progressives such as Henry Wallace shows how seriously liberals took the potential of political tyranny from abroad. The Coalition for a Democratic Majority, founded by Scoop Jackson and other Cold War liberals, makes clear that this emphasis on freedom is not purely international. Their unique form of liberalism relies upon creating “ever expanding opportunities for individuals” to live their lives as they wish. Likewise, many cold war liberals, such as Hubert Humphrey, became the driving force at the heart of the Democratic Party on behalf of civil rights.  

Republican Cold War liberals proved no different from their Democratic colleagues. Dwight D. Eisenhower maintained Truman’s commitment to Civil Rights and prudently maintained peace abroad. While Nixon’s 1960 campaign for President was the first to feature an ardent advocate against Southern segregation (Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.) as the second place on the ticket. Even Ronald Reagan – who according to Moyne represents proof of liberalism’s degradation – was, for much of Eastern Europe, a champion of freedom and equality in a world clouded by the dark tyranny of communism. There is a reason his statue appears more than any other foreign leader in cities across the former Soviet Bloc.  

All this having been said about Cold War liberal statesmen, Moyn still fundamentally mischaracterizes the thinkers themselves. He makes much hay out of Hannah Arendt’s unrelenting criticism of the Civil Rights Movement, yet pays almost no attention to the many Cold War liberals who championed the cause of freedom on the domestic front. He does this partly by obscuring important details of the thinkers he does examine – Isiah Berlin’s worship of Franklin Roosevelt is conveniently forgotten – but also by neglecting thinkers who might troublesomely challenge his argument – Reinhold Niebuhr, Raymond Aron, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. receive only passing mentions. The overall effect is not so much to convince the reader that Moyn’s argument is true but instead that he has a real knack for selecting whatever bits of evidence make his argument seem true. 

The one substantive thing Moyn gets right is that liberalism is very much in trouble. The merry band of post-liberal nightmares that now dominate our political life serve as sad proof of that fact. However, abandoning Cold War liberalism will not allow us to revive the cause of freedom. Instead, we must build upon the ideas of Berlin, Himmelfarb, and Niebuhr – embracing their strengths and finding ways to compensate for their weaknesses. This is exactly what Cold War liberals did when they inherited the majestic tradition of Locke and Mill. Now it is our turn.