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Liberalism in Mourning

Lionel Trilling crystallizes the cynical Cold War liberalism that sacrificed idealism for self-restraint.

Thanks to this eternal return, Cold War liberalism still sets the fundamental terms of the liberal outlook—in spite of all the alternatives within the liberal tradition. Lost in this shuffle was how much of a betrayal of liberalism itself Cold War liberalism had been. Perhaps no one better illustrates this chosen fate than literary critic Lionel Trilling. One of the most admired of the Cold War liberals, Trilling was also the most remorselessly self-critical. The essays he wrote in the later 1930s and 1940s established the position of The Liberal Imagination, his 1950 triumph that sold almost two hundred thousand copies. Alongside Trilling’s 1947 novel, The Middle of the Journey, his essays crystallize the abandonment of the liberal cause in the name of rescuing it from illusions and immaturity.

This kind of Cold War liberalism continues to haunt liberalism even today, but Trilling was also its most pitiless critic. We now tend to think of Cold War liberalism as a political stance with familiar implications in domestic and foreign policy, defending freedom of thought against miscreants right, left, postmodern, and “woke” at home, and choosing between containment and rollback of bigger geopolitical challengers while engaging in counterinsurgency and proxy wars around the world. Yet like so many political doctrines, Cold War liberalism was as much about the self as the state or society.

In 1958 political philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously captured this liberalism’s commitment to “negative liberty,” freedom against interference; by contrast, Trilling’s call to contain disorderly passion for the sake of austere freedom resonated with an ideology of self-control in deep tension with the notion of liberty as noninterference. While his fellow Cold War liberal Judith Shklar, a political theorist at Harvard, defined the creed as a “liberalism of fear” that committed itself above all to avoiding cruelty, Trilling thought it also entailed self-subjugation and self-policing, and he squirmed under the self-torture he recommended. His call for a self-regulated Cold War liberal persona was never complete and unambivalent: even as a damaged life led him to impose limits, he never entirely relinquished his youthful protest against unnecessary ones.

Born in New York City in 1905 to Polish Jewish immigrants (his father sold fur-lined coats), Trilling had been a fellow traveler of communism very briefly, from 1931 to 1933, and he was never a party member. But in some ways he never left the 1930s, and his Cold War liberalism could be read as a kind of therapy in response. As Trilling saw it, Stalinism, far from being some foreign enemy alone or even mainly, was rooted in the form of liberalism that Trilling’s generation had inherited from the nineteenth century. The deepest contest for this Cold War liberal was inside.