Power  /  Q&A

Is Liberalism a Politics of Fear?

A conversation about the Cold War’s profound and negative influence on the liberal worldview.

DSJ: How is Cold War liberalism a deviation from its earlier predecessor? You point out, for instance, that much of 19th-century liberalism promoted laissez-faire economics and was inseparable from European imperialism. Are you saying that this tradition offers better resources for the challenges of today’s world than Cold War liberalism?

SM: Emphasizing the mutation of liberalism in the middle of the 20th century naturally raises the possibility that there are better things to find and recover in its past, given how its present is working out. This doesn’t mean the book calls for a return to the 19th century. However, I do identify three features of that earlier liberalism worth reclaiming: its insistence on a highest good in life, as the first and main emancipatory political framework of modern politics; its commitment to some story of emancipation in history, orienting us between a past of less freedom and a future of more; and its agreement with Marxism that the conditions for the enjoyment of freedom and rights matter much more than their formal or legal annunciation. As you say, liberalism has always been haunted by its apology for the free market, but the Cold War liberals failed to defend the expansion of the state and the politics of redistribution that climaxed during their own lives. And while 19th-century liberals were often apologists for empire and all its violence, at least they had a program that was global in scale, in purporting to spread “civilization.” Early Cold War liberals, by contrast, treated “the West” as a kind of last redoubt of liberty, assuming global and non-white emancipation was a lost cause. Isn’t that worse?

DSJ: Usually, when we think of the Cold War liberal intellectuals, men are typically listed: Reinhold Niebuhr, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. With the exception of Berlin and Popper, however, you have assembled a different set that includes three women—namely, Hannah Arendt, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Judith Shklar. You also have a chapter on Lionel Trilling. Why the different cast of characters?

SM: I selected them to illustrate certain neglected perspectives on Cold War liberalism, and to give women their due as pivotal thinkers. They helped me build that story of deaccessioning prior liberal resources in order to seek new ones—like Christianity or psychoanalysis. Some are valuable for thinking through the Jewish background of the Cold War liberals or their global politics. All of them combine to illuminate how the priorities of Cold War liberalism shifted. It wasn’t just a matter of a changing mood for liberalism, but one of abandoning past commitments in the presence of the Soviet foe in order to strip liberalism down to the defense of liberty.