Power  /  Book Review

Samuel Moyn Can’t Stop Blaming Trumpism on Liberals

"Liberalism Against Itself" makes an incoherent attack on liberalism.

Within a few years after World War II, most liberals severed all cooperation with communists. They did this for pragmatic reasons (communists had exploited ties with the Roosevelt administration to spy on it, and post-war communism grew so poisonous to the public that Democrats needed to repudiate it to retain politically viable), but also for principled ones. The Stalinist character of communist party organizations with which many progressives had contact in the 1930s — organizations that demanded rigid adherence to an often absurd party line and terrorized dissidents — made clear the inherently authoritarian nature of the thought system they represented.

Many liberal intellectuals came to see Marxism not just as a souped-up version of their own beliefs (communists liked to call themselves “liberals in a hurry”) but as a fundamentally alien doctrine. A philosophy that deems its political opponents to be an enemy class is unavoidably going to abuse them. Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat was never going to be temporary.

Liberalism Against Itself is a critique of this philosophical break, which Moyn calls “a fateful reversal for liberalism.” Moyn sees the liberal condemnation of the Soviet Union as equivalent to Nazi Germany as a tragic error. When Cold War liberals decided they could not accept cruelty and immorality in the service of some utopian goal, he argues, they foreclosed “any notion that the furtherance of a better future functioned as a justification for immorality now.” By tying their own hands out of misplaced fear of tyranny and shying away from utopian promises, Moyn argues that liberals set the stage for the right’s triumph in the 1970s and beyond.

The word “argues” overstates things. Moyn actually assumes all the most important premises in his argument. He does not make a case for why “immorality” (his own term!) is both safe and useful for advancing human welfare. He likewise makes no case for why it was wrong to equate fascism and communism. (After all, Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, with their ubiquitous propaganda, secret police, concentration camps, and systematized slaughter of internal enemies real and imagined, resemble no other states in history so much as each other).

Most importantly, Moyn hardly bothers to substantiate his assumption that liberalism should be presumed a historical failure. For all the reversals liberalism has suffered over the last three-quarters of a century, it has made the United States a fairer and more prosperous society, enacting civil and voting-rights laws, expanding the safety net, creating environmental and other regulatory protections, and extending legal equality to gays and other minorities. Moyn, to be sure, would contest this assertion, but he does not bother to do so, even in brief. His audience has to simply accept on faith that liberalism is dying.