Liberalism in Dark Times: The Liberal Ethos in the Twentieth Century by Joshua Cherniss. Princeton University Press, 328 pages.
Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics and Humanity by Kei Hiruta. Princeton University Press, 288 pages.
Doom and gloom literature on the crisis of liberalism shows no signs of abating. Despite the election of Joe Biden, and the passing of his truncated infrastructure bill, liberal prophecies of democracy’s imminent demise abound. As we inch closer to the 2022 midterm elections, a dreaded, millenarian-like anticipation has seized the liberal imagination: an almost fatalistic sense that the GOP will win majorities in the House and Senate, paving the way for Trump’s election in 2024. This, combined with a conservative Supreme Court, will result in the end of democracy as we know it.
Liberal internationalism, in turn, awaits a similar fate: “The bad guys are winning,” says the centrist liberal Anne Applebaum: rightwing nationalism, and not liberalism, is becoming the new international norm, according to her, constituting a historical reversal of the political direction of the twentieth century, which ended in liberalism’s global triumph. Such anxieties only deepen given the reality that the United States is embroiled in a superpower competition with China leading to an unavoidable New Cold War. All of these factors, combined with the country’s embarrassing retreat from Afghanistan and dysfunctional response to the pandemic, provide ample proof to the embattled liberal that the United States is experiencing a prolonged post-imperial decline—that the “American century” is over.
Given this narrative, the question naturally arises as to how the United States—the great victor of the Cold War, and, until recently, the richest country in the world with the most powerful military in human history—has fallen into such dark times. There’s no shortage of bestselling literature on this topic, making it tricky to discern the ideological stakes. There is, however, a loosely affiliated school of thought that offers a very influential explanation of the crisis of liberalism, even as it often goes unnamed. Unlike other liberal perspectives, this group does not point to a dysfunctional system of political representation in which liberal political elites prove too out of touch and disconnected with “the people”; in other words, they do not place top priority on reforming democratic institutions. And pace leftists and left liberals, they do not principally locate the problem in growing wealth inequality brought on by neoliberalism, which is to say that economics is not chiefly to blame. On the contrary, they believe today’s liberals have failed to prioritize the real reason behind liberalism’s decline: illiberal enemies are undermining and destroying it. If it is going to survive, liberalism needs a new heroic fighting faith. It needs a new Cold War liberalism.
Though they claim to want a renewed welfare state to moderate such threats, Cold War liberals regularly fail to discern how their politics of compromise have helped undermine it.
Today’s Cold War liberals—Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder, George Packer, Mark Lilla, Yascha Mounk, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Bari Weiss and many others—take their insights from the old ones. Mid-twentieth century thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Raymond Aron, and Karl Popper believed that liberalism’s long-standing Enlightenment tradition of moral idealism and optimism regarding human and societal improvement had to be fundamentally rethought for two principal reasons. First, they argued, it proved naïve, and politically and morally irresponsible, given a new age of “totalitarian extremes”; liberals would need to toughen up and develop a doctrine of defense given the ruthlessness and fanaticism of National Socialism and Soviet Communism. And second, liberalism’s high idealism and “moral purism” proved incompatible with the growing pluralism and diversity of values that marked modern society. Without moderating itself, liberalism would provoke a permanent and dangerous clash of values, and galvanize the very ideological forces that threatened its existence.
Cold War liberalism, argues the historian Samuel Moyn, places the fear of the collapse of freedom in tyranny at the center of political thought. Underlying this fear is a profound sense of trauma and anxiety. The end goal of Cold War liberalism is to contain unavoidable conflicts through what its adherents describe as a “politics of moderation.” Such moderation entails the logic of using violence for the purpose of achieving conditions that keep liberals safe—a logic that goes a long way to explain the country’s forever wars.
No wonder the heirs of Cold War liberalism today focus most of all on liberalism’s state of crisis. A decades-long post-Cold War hangover after the heady liquor of “the end of history,” they say, has left progressives blind to the “fascist” realities brewing right under their noses. Moreover, the new Cold War liberals are deeply disturbed by the revival of liberalism’s naïve moral idealism, which has led many of them to embrace uncompromising political visions (defunding the police, wokeism, government forgiveness of student loans, etc.) that alienate potential allies, thus stymieing the political pluralism that is necessary to resist the ruthless forces of Trumpism. And though they claim to want a renewed welfare state to moderate such threats, Cold War liberals regularly fail to discern how their politics of compromise have helped undermine it.
Cold War liberalism has long been criticized for betraying the moral and political idealism of the liberal tradition by giving pride of place to domestic and international security concerns; it’s all too willing to justify the bending and breaking of liberal values to contain and resist threats. Indeed, the term “Cold War liberalism” was first used by its New Left critics of the 1960s and 1970s to describe a defensive liberal ideology that linked social democratic welfare states to U.S. military superiority and NATO—that is, a welfare state premised on a security state. Yet starting in the 1990s, shortly after the Cold War ended, this species of liberalism began to be positively reevaluated. Strangely, very little academic work has been devoted to unpacking Cold War liberalism’s complicated and revealing history, evolution, and influence in contemporary affairs.
This lacuna, however, is beginning to be filled by a younger generation of scholars. Some are critical of this tradition. Others are seeking to revive it. A case in point of the latter is Joshua Cherniss, whose well-researched new book, Liberalism in Dark Times: The Liberal Ethos in the Twentieth Century, was published earlier this year. Cherniss—a political theorist at Georgetown University—is to be commended for writing the first book-length study on the historical origins and ethical nature of Cold War liberalism. The book longs, however, to be something more than a mere academic exercise. Cherniss hopes to recover Cold War liberalism for resisting Trumpism on the right and to correct what he sees as the new dangerous and uncompromising political visions of the left. As such, he seeks to overcome Cold War liberalism’s bad rap, which he believes leftist scholarship has distorted.
Much like today’s other self-appointed inheritors of Cold War liberalism, Cherniss locates the crisis of liberalism not in the breakdown of political institutions, nor in growing economic inequality—he acknowledges that these are in need of attention, but insists that the root of the problem lies elsewhere. What is causing liberals to suffer today, he claims, is their failure to grasp the moral character and ethical sensibility of their illiberal enemies, whom he believes are downright ruthless. By “ruthlessness,” Cherniss has in mind an ethical temperament defined by a kind of purism or absolutism that “rejects all scruples, doubts, hesitation, and remorse in pursuing some ultimate purpose or serving some paramount principle.”
Cherniss sees today’s ruthlessness through the eternal prism of National Socialism and Soviet Communism, though he devotes much more attention to the latter. The second chapter of the book seeks to illustrate the nature of ruthlessness by making recourse to the life and writings of the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács (1885-1971), considered by some to be the preeminent Marxist thinker of the Stalinist era. It was Lukács’s moral purism—“his picture of an absolutely good and obligatory cause, and an absolutely evil enemy,” says Cherniss—that led him to embrace the ruthlessness of Bolshevism. To resist such ruthlessness without succumbing to it, Cherniss claims, necessitates a different sensibility. Here, Cherniss follows the example of so many other Cold War liberals by drawing inspiration from Lukács’s former teacher, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), and in particular his notion of the ethics of responsibility.
Liberalism as a lesser evil is a major assumption of the book, one that proves less convincing eight decades removed from Nazi Germany.
In a modern world of ever-increasing values, it would be not only naïve and ineffective but dangerously irresponsible to base one’s politics on what Weber describes as the “flame of pure conviction.” Such was the sin, Weber thought, of not only Bolshevism but pacifism. If anything is to be accomplished, he argued, an ethics of responsibility must be embraced, one which allows for the wise and discerning management of divergent values. Of course, set against the backdrop of Stalin’s Five-Year Plans and the Nazis’ extermination campaigns, it’s not very difficult to portray, as Cherniss does, Weber’s ethics of responsibility as the lesser evil. More problematic today is a liberalism that has for decades been playing fast and loose with the ethics of responsibility in light of supposed “security threats” which it dwarfs in power.
Taking his cue from Weber, Cherniss provides his readers with a character study of Cold War liberalism, offering an expositional analysis of four mid-twentieth-century intellectuals. They are all white men, mainly from Europe, and, with perhaps one exception, some of the leading mandarins of their time: Raymond Aron, Reinhold Niebuhr, Isaiah Berlin, and Albert Camus. They recognized, according to Cherniss, that since the ruthlessness of Communism and Nazism was inseparable from an uncompromising absolutism, liberalism would need to moderate its own moral and progressive idealism, lest a perpetual clash of values ensue. In other words, the necessity to fight extremes demanded that liberals take on a new kind of ethical sensibility—what Cherniss calls “tempered liberalism”—marked by moderation, compromise, pluralism, an emphasis on limits, skepticism, and an ironic outlook. In a world where values will inevitably conflict, violence will be unavoidable, but all things being equal, tempered liberalism, Cherniss claims, is by far a lesser evil than the absolutism and purism that marks an ethos of ruthlessness. Politics needs such heroic wisemen, who manage violence rather than allowing it to go to extremes.
Liberalism as a lesser evil is a major assumption of the book, one that proves less convincing eight decades removed from Nazi Germany. Cherniss’s cast of tempered liberals, despite his attempt to put them in the best light, winds up demonstrating the very flaws for which Cold War liberalism has been criticized going back fifty years.
Consider, for instance, Cherniss’s chapter devoted to Raymond Aron (1905-1983), the Cold War French intellectual and sociologist best known for his critiques of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and of the French Left in general. It’s easy to see why Cherniss would include Aron in his study. In his most famous book, The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955), Aron argued the grand ideologies of fascism and Marxism were the products of the nineteenth century, a time of deepening misery for the industrial proletariat. The social order that emerged after World War II—marked by a prosperous economy, rising standards of living for the middle class, and a growing white-collar sector—had made both obsolete. In 1953, shortly after Stalin’s death, Aron argued that Western Europe was moving in the direction of a “non-millennial socialism and a non-reactionary conservatism” that offered both peaceful governance and peaceful opposition. He viewed ideological controversies in Western societies to be fading since the welfare state had proven it could reconcile divergent demands and, in turn, deflect revolutionary passions.
The best way to maintain the system, argued Aron, required political elites to engage in various “degrees and methods of compromise.” The working classes could be reconciled to a pluralistic system of governance since the welfare state provided the necessary safety net that would render the need for revolution obsolete. This end to ideology necessitated wise statesmen, Aron argued as well as technicians and managers with the adequate training to keep the system properly running.
It is not hard to see how easily Aron’s version of the “end of ideology” could transform into a security doctrine—one ready to compromise a commitment to its supposed ideals in the name of threats. It’s, clear, for instance, that Aron’s thinking about ideology is a gloss on Weber’s politics of conviction. Aron believed that ideologies were not only irrational—grounded in passion or fanaticism—but also carried with them the threat of violent conflict. What happens, then, if there is a return of ideology after the end of ideology? That is, what happens if Aron’s managerial system starts to break down, giving way to a perceived dangerous revival of ideological politics?
Is this really the kind of liberalism the Democratic Party needs today?
Cherniss shows that Aron’s thinking about perceived states of exception and social disruption drew from the lessons that he learned during the dark times of the 1930s. Given the fate of liberal democracy in that era, it might not seem unreasonable at all if Aron, after the War, expressed anxieties about the further breakdown of politics in France and Europe as a whole. That is the way trauma works: once you suffer it, you perpetually fear its recurrence. Aron consistently misread the post-1968 period through the prism of the 1930s. He did this on account of the May 1968 student movement and workers strikes, the U.S. loss of the Vietnam War, the Third Worldism movement, and the rise of the Common Program in France. All of these made Aron paranoid that the liberal West was losing the Cold War.
As such, he sought to implement the lessons that had gone unheeded in the 1930s. For this reason, he supported the 1973 military overthrow of socialist President Salvador Allende in Chile under the pretense that in doing so, the military avoided a civil war there. To his credit, Cherniss mentions this episode, but he brushes it off by saying it is understandable given Aron’s old fears about civil war in France. This is not a compelling argument. You can be ruthless, Cherniss says, without embracing a ruthless ethos. That’s a rather fine line. When democracy dies in Chile, he offers extenuation rather than condemnation. Such is lesser-evil liberalism.
Cherniss mentions that Aron, like his other Cold War liberal subjects, was not a neoliberal even if he did engage with neoliberals. But Cherniss does not ask why he was engaging them in the first place. Until shortly after the death of Stalin, Aron was a member of Friedrich Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society. But once he thought Europe had achieved an end of ideology after the Communist leader’s death, an alliance with neoliberals, a lesser evil who opposed the welfare state, was no longer necessary. After 1968, this changed. In the 1970s, Aron sought a coalition of center right parties, which brought the French neoliberals, known as the Nouveaux Economists together with the moderate right to block the attempt by socialists and Communists via Mitterrand’s Common Program to nationalize industry. Moreover, the so-called liberal Aron supported the presidency of Ronald Reagan, since Aron believed that the U.S. Democratic establishment had gone soft on Communism. At this time, he also expressed his admiration of Margaret Thatcher, whose neoliberal economic policies he believed offered a possible solution to the UK’s economic woes. Tempered liberalism led Aron, like many other Cold War liberals, down a path that in the United States would be described as neoconservatism. Is this really the kind of liberalism the Democratic Party needs today?
Much of the same can be said about Cherniss’s discussion of the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). The fact that his name has been positively referenced by almost every U.S. president since the 1970s doesn’t inspire confidence. Like Aron, Niebuhr had a Weberian outlook—he’s a chastening voice for a Left blinded by moral purism and absolutism. For it was Niebuhr’s essential insight, in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), that the horrors of World War I, socialists advocating for violent revolution, and the rise of fascism proved that the pacifism of the Social Gospel movement—and the powerful influence of John Dewey’s democratic humanism—were dangerously out of touch with dark political realities. Such idealism put into practice, he believed, was politically naïve and therefore dangerous: it results in either political fantasies or overlooking the reality of dangerous threats to the political order. Since all human beings are fallen and sinful, especially at the collective level, Niebuhr thought the best that could be achieved was an approximation of justice.
In the 1930s, Niebuhr, a kind of socialist realist, remained committed to class struggle. But after World War II, his thinking transformed into a political theology for the effective managing and balancing of collective forces. Essentially, such an “equilibrium of power,” as Niebuhr liked to call it, is no different than Aron’s end of ideology. Indeed, in 1952, Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History of the “fluidity of the American class structure” and decline of “social resentments” in the United States. Power had become “equilibrated”; “disproportions” and “disbalances” in economic society, according to Niebuhr, were now redressed. Paradoxically, The Irony of American History, published two years before the Brown v. Board of Education verdict, is basically silent on the question of race in America. Nine years later, Niebuhr opined: “there is no ‘increasing misery’ among Negros in this country.” He was a critic of southern racism, having repudiated it for decades. But his ironic sensibility—and at times, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” perspective—explains why he believed that the outright ban on school segregation was “morally right” if “pedagogically unfortunate,” since it “polarized the sentiments of the south and wiped out the moderate opinion which was making real progress.” Such is tempered liberalism.
Irony of a similar nature is on display in Niebuhr’s thinking about the Vietnam War. Cherniss notes that until 1965, Niebuhr had been ambivalent about American involvement in Vietnam. At this time, he became convinced that the United States could not win the war, and gradually came to issue public criticisms regarding the uptick in Lyndon Johnson’s bombing campaigns. Cherniss says the reason for him doing so was his tempered liberalism, which rejected ruthlessness. But he does not fully interrogate the reasons for Niebuhr’s earlier ambivalence. Yes, Niebuhr’s conflicted support for the war at this time was due to his concerns that Vietnam would fall to brutal Communist rule, as Cherniss argues. However, it was also rooted in Niebuhr’s orientalist views of the Asian continent. The Irony of American History characterizes the Middle East as a “decadent Mohammedan feudal order” of “sleeping-waking cultures in which the drama of human history is not taken seriously.” Few of the non-industrial nations, Niebuhr argued, are capable of Western democracy since they do not “have sufficiently high standards of honesty to make democratic government viable.” For some reason, Cherniss does not cite these passages. While Niebuhr cautioned against American liberal crusading abroad, we need to remember his reasoning: it would be a lost cause, given the dishonest, decadent, and feudal societies of poorer nations.
As with Niebuhr, Cherniss downplays certain implications of Isaiah Berlin’s thought. What distinguished the tempered liberalism of the famed Oxford don Berlin (1909-1997) is his pluralism, Cherniss says, which marked both his ethical sensibility and his political theory. Never mind that Berlin did not owe that commitment to pluralism to the same source as Cherniss’s other heroes. “I never read much Weber,” Berlin remarked at one point. But in a manner nonetheless in keeping with Weber, Berlin argued that the world we encounter involves a diversity of values that are often incompatible. As he put it in his most well-known text, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), we are faced with choices between “ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute.” Yet even as conflicts of value, Berlin reasoned, are unavoidable, having the freedom of choice to make uncoerced decisions is essential to being a human. This “negative liberty” demands that there is an area in which I am permitted to do as I wish, an area of non-interference. Politics is likened to a kind of art form where the freedom of one citizen does not interfere with the freedom of other citizens. Quite naturally, negative freedom was seen by Berlin’s contemporaries as a repudiation of Soviet Communism.
Cherniss, like other commentators, makes it clear that Berlin’s anti-communism can be traced back to the period between the World Wars—as a child, his wealthy family, who witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution, left the Soviet Union, eventually arriving in Britain in 1921. Berlin had scores of adjectives to describe the Communists—fanatics, utopians, purists, and the like—whose hallmark was the rejection of value pluralism: they were willing to run roughshod over human individuality to achieve what he described as their “monistic” ends. They promoted a positive conception of liberty that tolerates interference in the lives of individuals in the name of deeper sense of freedom and human meaning.
In Cherniss’s chapter on Berlin, he touts the same virtues that mark his other character studies in tempered liberalism: moderation, self-examination, toleration of idiosyncrasies, irony, etc. One reason for drawing attention to such virtues is that it enables him to get around charges that Berlin’s thinking is too complicit with neoliberalism and libertarian modes of thought. Even as it is true that Berlin supported a “mixed economy” and redistributionist welfare state, critics have long seen a natural affinity between neoliberalism and negative liberty.
In this sense, Kei Hiruta’s new book, Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics and Humanity, presents Berlin’s thinking in a more sober light. Hiruta observes that Berlin had little to say, in general, on economic inequality and, in particular, about the pernicious forces of neoliberalism. And although Berlin warned of “the evils of unrestricted laissez-faire,” he never took the time to discuss how negative liberty, if unregulated in the economic sphere, could be contained. Despite his effort late in life to make amends for these concerns, Hiruta notes that critics to this day argue that Berlin’s negative liberty is complicit in the “harm done by neoliberalism.”
Under pressure, tempered liberalism proves to be little else than bourgeois cultural conservatism.
Unlike Cherniss’s project, Hiruta’s book devotes attention to addressing the question of gender and sexism in Berlin’s thought. Berlin, Hiruta shows, repeatedly referred to Hannah Arendt as a “bluestocking,” a derogatory term referring to educated and intelligent women. Indeed, his attitude toward Arendt, even before the controversy surrounding the Eichmann trial, was marked, according to Hiruta, by misogynistic tendencies. And in Berlin’s scholarly work, no references to gender as a category of analysis appear. Perhaps we can write this off as Berlin being a man of his times, but insofar as Cherniss wants to recover tempered liberalism for the current age, the topic should be addressed. The word “gender” appears twice in his entire book, and “feminism” not a single time.
Hiruta provides even more revealing details regarding Berlin’s thinking on race and the student protest movements of the late 1960s. He made the following comments about May 1968 at Columbia University: “New York—the student riots—the slowly mounting mass of black anger—is terrifying.” According to Hiruta, Berlin regarded the “sixty-eighters” filling the streets of New York as “politically and intellectually worthless.” “I long for some bourgeois stability,” he wrote, “some protection against the turning of all private, inner, disinterested activity into screams and shouts and public issues.” That Raymond Aron, and to some extent Reinhold Niebuhr, had a similar response to 1968 is telling. Under pressure, tempered liberalism proves to be little else than bourgeois cultural conservatism.
Perhaps the exception to this in Cherniss’s study would be the famed French existentialist, Albert Camus (1930-1960). Cherniss is attracted to the moral outlook that came to mark Camus’s resistance activity during the Nazi occupation of France, which perfectly embodies his lesser evil idea of a liberalism that resists ruthlessness without adopting a ruthless mindset. “At the very moment when we are going to destroy you without pity,” Camus said in a letter to a German friend in 1944, “we still feel no hatred for you . . . we want to destroy you in your power without mutilating you in your soul.” Cherniss calls this a “heroism of non-emulation of the enemy,” which he sees on display in Camus’s Cold War novels such as La Peste (The Plague) in 1947 and his essays such as L’Homme révolté (The Rebel) in 1951.
Yet as many critics have noted, and Cherniss is aware, it is hard to reconcile this ethic with Camus’s conflicted attitude toward the colonial wars waged by France after 1945. Much has been written about his depiction of Arabs in his most famous novel, The Stranger: unlike the European characters, none of the Arabs have names, nor speak. But one incident in particular will suffice to explain the contradictions of Camus’s “tempered liberalism.” In May 1945, demonstrations broke out in the Algerian towns of Setif and Guelma, mainly driven by Algerian veterans of World War II who wanted the independence that had been seemingly promised to them by Charles de Gaulle. The result was the Setif and Guelma massacre: a French bombing campaign that led to the death of tens of thousands of Algerians by French colonial forces and pied-noir settler militias. Only about one hundred French settlers were killed. In his reporting on the topic, Camus depicts the police as reasonable, and refers to the actions of the demonstrators as the violence that mattered. Camus struggled to imagine an independent Algeria. Tempered liberalism is on display here, but mainly for the sake of the settler.
Cherniss hopes to recover Cold War liberalism, but has it really ever left us? In the 1990s, thinkers such as Mark Lilla, Tony Judt, and others sought to revive the moderation of such liberalism to counter the reckless teaching of postmodernism on college campuses. In the 2000s, Peter Beinart, Paul Berman, and George Packer embraced Cold War liberalism in the fight against “Islamic fascism.”
But no one in recent memory has demonstrated “tempered liberalism” better than Barack Obama. In a 2007 interview with David Brooks, Obama relayed that he embraced Niebuhr’s “compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.” Obama’s national security advisers described his foreign policy as “pragmatism over ideology.” In practice, this transformed an electoral campaign predicated on opposition to the Iraq War and cutting taxes into a presidency replete with forever wars and neoliberal economic policies. Tempered liberalism engenders enemies, undermines welfare, and, in turn, brings out the very forces that it now struggles to defeat.
Contrary to Cherniss’s study, we do not need a return to Cold War liberalism. Irony isn’t the appropriate response to rising seas. Rejecting a steadfast commitment to the purism of certain ideals explains the wall-sitting liberalism of Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin. However, Cherniss’s book is instructive for revealing the fatal shortcomings of Cold War liberalism and its misplaced fears. It shows how trauma and anxiety about the horrors of the past make it difficult for today’s Cold War liberals to discern the nature of the present. It shows how a liberalism predicated on resisting ruthlessness can compromise its commitment to welfare while remaining steadfast in its commitment to military spending. And it shows why today’s Cold War liberals are so eager to blame the ideals of the left for turning off voters, rather than their own decades-long failure to offer a program reflective of the needs of the working-class majority of the country, white and black.
A liberalism anxious about the masses and democratic protest has shown its limits precisely in an age of despair and reaction. To think innovatively today about education, economics, and politics demands a break with the anxieties that drove Cold War liberalism.