In this conversation with RevDem assistant editor Vilius Kubekas, Joshua L. Cherniss discusses the central role ethical commitment played in twentieth-century liberalism. Drawing on insights from Max Weber, Albert Camus, Raymond Aron, Reinhold Niebuhr and Isaiah Berlin, Cherniss argues for an ethically inspiring liberalism to confront illiberalisms today. The conversation touches on the uniqueness of tempered liberals in respect to other forms of Cold War liberalism; the relationship between tempered liberalism and neoliberalism; and what tempered liberalism can offer today.
Joshua Cherniss is a political theorist and historian of political ideas who teaches at Georgetown University. He specializes in twentieth-century political thought and is a leading authority on Isaiah Berlin’s political thought. His recent book is Liberalism in Dark Times: The Liberal Ethos in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2021).
The conversation was recorded on February 21, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Vilius Kubekas: Your approach to the history of liberalism focuses on individuals and aims to grasp the ethos that governed their thoughts and actions. This focus on the ethical dimension of politics is as old as political philosophy itself, however, it is not that common in intellectual history. Why do you assign priority to political ethics in the study of liberalism? What challenges does such an approach pose to the intellectual historian and the political theorist?
Joshua L. Cherniss: I should start by clarifying what we mean by ethics and by ethos. Most broadly, ethics is concerned with questions of how we should live, who we should be, and what we should do. Political ethics, which is what I focused on, is accordingly concerned with what we should do, who we should be, and how we should conduct ourselves in the realm of politics specifically.
There are many ways of approaching these questions, such as in terms of general principles or ultimate goals. Another approach, which is not mutually exclusive with the other, is to think about the qualities of character or the characteristics of behaviour we should try to cultivate. Ethos relates to this. It is, at least as I define the term, a sort of complex, or set of interlocking features, of character or temperament, habits, perceptions, evaluative beliefs, values that shape how we engage in the world, or some part of it – how we translate our goals, or general beliefs into action, how we live out these beliefs and live towards vitalgoals.
So one reason to focus on ethics is that it is just quite important to political life.
The institutional framework of politics, the goals that we seek are, of course, also terrifically important, but so is the way in which we conduct ourselves within institutional frameworks and in the process of pursuing goals. Our daily choices generally involve, and often hinge on, questions of ethics. We should by now recognize that good institutions or good theories or good intentions are not enough.
How people actually conduct themselves, what kind of people we are and how we think it is acceptable or unacceptable to behave matter to the preservation or the destruction of institutions, and in fact of a decent or tolerable political life.
Ethical decisions are things over which we have some control, as opposed to the larger circumstances within which we operate.
Being particularly close to individual experience, I think, ethics or a focus on questions of ethics allows us to really connect political theory to lived life. Insofar as much political theory gets away from individual experience, it may seem less engaging, less immediate, and less helpful for us.
I also fear that the tendency to abstract or move away from individual experience may be disempowering. It may foster a sense that larger forces and arrangements, and not individual actions, matter, which is of course true up to a point, but I do not think that we should exaggerate that. I also worry that this focus on larger forces and larger principles may make usless thoughtful, less responsible, less morally sensitive about our own conduct.
Another reason why I focus on the ethical dimension of politics is that it has been particularly minimized in many discussions of liberal theory by both intellectual historians and political theorists. Not entirely, of course, but there is a tendency to associate liberalism with a focus on institutions, theorizing in terms of general principles of justice or legitimacy. There are very good reasons for this and there are certain challenges that focusing on ethics poses for a liberal theory. First, I think there is a fear, particularly among more recent liberal theorists, that the focus on ethics might encourage attempts to foster virtuous character through state action or through social pressure. It may encourage a harsh, even punitive attitude and treatment of those who are judged to be unvirtuous or ethically insufficient. More ethically robust or ethically demanding forms of liberalism sometimes do fall into these tendencies. I think there is also a certain scepticism or pessimism or, if you prefer, realism about human nature among many liberal theorists – human beings are not angels, good character cannot be relied upon, and so we need to look to institutions instead. Again, I think it is true up to a point, but we can see how what look like good institutions or sensible policies can really founder without some degree of good conduct on the part of the actors. I think another problem particularly with focusing on ethics is that it is just rather imprecise and elusive in a way that some political theorists do not like. They prefer a degree of precision or tidiness in thinking.
But despite all these problems and reservations, my historical research convinced me that questions of ethics and commitment to one or another ethos played a really important role in debates about the merits and failings, even the viability and desirability of liberalism in the early twentieth century. To fully understand what motivated people and what was at stake in attacks on and defences of liberalism requires paying attention to ethical questions and claims about ethos in addition to other issues. So wherever one thinks about the merits of this approach to liberalism, or to political theory more broadly, it clearly has its historical importance.
Much of the recent historiography adopted a rather unsympathetic stance to liberalism, emphasizing its various deficiencies. Even Helena Rosenblatt, a liberal herself, in her attempt to recover the “lost history” of liberalism, treated the innovations of the mid-20th century liberals as turning away from the tradition of liberalism that was concerned with morals and the public good. In this respect, your book stands out from the rest. While in contemporary usage Cold War liberalism is frequently employed as a derogatory term, you offer a view that Cold War liberalism was “morally robust and politically engaged.” You depict the thinkers you analyse as representing a tempered liberalism. Could you elaborate on what tempered liberalism is and what are its main features? What distinguishes tempered liberalism from the larger tradition of liberalism? How did this emphasis on political ethics shape your perspective on the history of liberalism?
This is perhaps one of the potentially more controversial parts of the book. Even today, or perhaps especially today, talking about Cold War liberalism does involve entering a bit of a minefield. First, I should clarify something which has evidently eluded some readers and reviewers of the book – the book is not a comprehensive history of Cold War liberalism or an attempt to identify its essence.
What I named tempered liberalism, as you say, is really just one strand within Cold War liberalism. It is not equivalent or coterminous with Cold War liberalism more broadly.
More generally, I think we do need to be careful about the use of the term Cold War liberalism as it is a somewhat vague term, which encompasses, or is used to encompass, a number of very different tendencies. So far as I can tell, a lot of the figures I write about, a lot of the figures who are frequently referred to as Cold War liberals, never actually used that term to describe themselves.
Liberalism itself is notoriously difficult to define and covers a lot of different things. I think a good working definition is that it is a political theory or political outlook defined by the commitment to individual liberty, the liberty of individuals to make choices for themselves about the direction of their own lives, and is committed to the protection of that liberty through a number of political institutions and practices – constitutionalism, representative government, a sphere of civil society protected against government control, private property, religious toleration.
All of this reflects a core liberal idea – that the power that any person or people can exercise over others should be limited. The reach of politics itself should be limited to allow room for personal freedom and variety and protect against oppression. Any ruthless, single-minded, unquestionable pursuit of any goal, however noble it may be, is to be distrusted. That belief characterizes a lot of, but not all, forms of liberalism. It is particularly central to tempered liberalism, as I define it. This opposition to ruthlessness as an ethical impulse is really crucial.
Tempered liberalism, as I use the term, is a response to a particular set of ethical critiques and challenges that confronted liberalism in the early twentieth century, which charged liberalism with ethical failure. These critiques embraced or exalted ruthlessness, that is to say the rejection of ethical and institutional limits on action. Tempered liberalism seeks to respond to these critiques and challenges by articulating and fostering an ethos or a sensibility or a type of temperament associated with liberalism. So to call it a tempered liberalism is partly a sort of play on words connected to temperament.
But it also refers to the idea of tempering in the sense of being formed by opposition and tribulation, and in the process being both chastened or moderated, but also strengthened in certain ways.
So tempered liberalism is not historically optimistic, or psychologically optimistic. It does not put faith in getting institutions right, or generating economic well-being, or scientific knowledge as solutions to fundamental political problems, though it recognizes that these things are important.
It diverges from a focus on general principles, or the activity of theoretically justifying or legitimating liberal orders. It is concerned with the ethical challenges of living within, upholding, defending, improving, or correcting the failings of actually existing liberal regimes, among actual, imperfect, highly diverse people.
It does not seek to set out general systematic theories or general principles of justice or freedom. As I have said, proponents of tempered liberalism articulate and also seek in their practice to exhibit a liberal ethos or temperament marked by certain characteristics – self-questioning, dialogue, attention to historical particulars, habits or dispositions of forbearance, fortitude, humility, scepticism, irony, generosity, tolerance and so on.
Other forms of liberalism are also concerned with ethics and articulate some of the same concerns, but I do think that the lack of reliance on theories of historical progress, or institutional design, or theoretical justification does set tempered liberalism apart from both most of nineteenth-century liberalism and also from more recent forms of liberalism associated with John Rawls and those influenced by him.
Looking at tempered liberalism led me to the belief that two stories that are often told about liberalism are at least party incorrect. One is a really critical story that is associated most recently with figures like Patrick Deneen, which sees liberalism as always morally vacuous or morally subversive. For Deneen, liberalism undermines any notion of or commitment to a higher good for human beings or common good for societies, by fostering an ethical outlook that exalts individual choice – and thus, Deneen thinks, selfishness, acquisitiveness, and moral laxity. Furthermore, liberal “tolerance” is actually the repressive imposition of a liberal morality, or anti-morality, on everyone. As my colleague Laura K. Field has argued, Deneen’s account of history is rather sloppy and his reading of texts often lopsided if not tendentious. He treats liberalism as something monolithic, with an internal logic that seems unaffected by (but rather dictates) historical events, different historical contexts, and some quite considerable differences between different individual liberals and groups of liberals. Deneen’s polemic also seems driven by an obsession with sexual and gender nonconformity (that is, departures from traditional heterosexuality and gender roles). Actually, Deneen’s frustration with liberalism points to a respect in which liberalism is quite morally demanding, in calling for reciprocity, as well as generosity, between members of a society. If I claim certain freedoms, and a certain sort of toleration or indeed respect, for myself in living my life, I should recognize that others should be granted similar forbearance. Deneen seems to deeply resent not being able to impose his religious beliefs, or beliefs about sexuality and gender, on others, while complaining bitterly whenever he feels his own religious and ethical beliefs infringed upon (even if this infringement is merely criticism, or being told that he can’t use state power to impose his conception of marriage on others).
Another is a more sympathetic, and I think much more historically accurate story, told by scholars like Helena Rosenblatt, which emphasizes the ethical dimensions in the political engagement of liberals at earlier stages. Rosenblatt, unlike Deneen, focuses on figures who actually identified and were identified by contemporaries as “liberals,” and reads these figures fairly carefully, and in historical context, to reconstruct what they actually thought. She shows that many of these earlier liberals were actually worried about selfishness and withdrawal from politics, and concerned with finding ways to foster virtuous character and commitment to the good of others, and of society. But Rosenblatt does suggest that liberalism takes a turn towards ethical neutrality, theoretical abstraction, and political disengagement after World War II in response to the horrors of totalitarianism and general suspicion of morally demanding doctrines and political passion.
Liberalism certainly is transformed by the experience of totalitarianism, but I think that a lot of the figures who are labelled Cold War liberals and lumped in with this turn to abstraction and neutrality and de-politicization actually remain much more politically engaged, much more ethically oriented than familiar stories tend to acknowledge.
In a certain sense, I do think Rosenblatt goes too far in countering Deneen-style stories about liberalism: there is an important strand within liberal thought that asserts individual rights, and defends disengagement with public life for the sake of private pursuits, against over-insistence on public virtue; in another sense, I think she does not go far enough, in not carrying her claims about the political engagement and ethical demandingness of liberalism forward into the post-World War II period.
While most of the figures you analyse were active in the second half of the twentieth century, you also discuss the political ethos of two very different intellectuals from the first half of the century, namely Max Weber and György Lukács, who were affiliated with the same circle in Heidelberg. They both witnessed how the First World War brought an end of the nineteenth-century liberalism that had been underpinned by belief in a certain progressive movement in history, and the subsequent Communist revolutions in Central Europe, however, they responded to these events in different ways. Weber reflected on the relationship between ethics and politics in his famous lecture on “Politics as a Vocation,” warning against the dangers of Bolshevism. Meanwhile, Lukács is a figure that one would not expect to find in a history of liberalism. A Hungarian intellectual known as a Marxist philosopher, he was one of the central figures in the Hungarian Soviet Republic, a short-lived entity that was proclaimed in 1919. Later, Lukács spent much of the 1930s and early 1940s in Moscow, surviving Stalin’s purges, while in 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution, he was co-opted into the government of Imre Nagy, where he played a certain symbolic role.
Your analysis of Weber and Lukács presents contrasting pictures. You depict Weber as a precursor to the Cold War liberalism that you analyse further in the book, while Lukács represents political ruthlessness and the very opposite of a liberal ethos. Which elements of Weber’s thinking make him into a precursor to tempered liberalism developed by Cold War liberals? Could you tell us about why have you decided to include Lukács in your book? In which ways does he represent the opposite of liberal ethos?
It is particularly appropriate to talk about it in this conversation, because my interest in these figures has certain connections to Central European University actually. But as you suggest, Weber and Lukács are historical outliers in a certain respect – both because they are earlier than the others and they also come from a Central European and German intellectual background while the others do not.
One reason why I looked at them is because they allowed me to set out a number of political-ethical questions and categories that shaped the ensuing discussions of tempered liberalism. Their lives very dramatically show some of the stakes and some of the implications involved in these questions.
To tell a bit about each of them in turn, Weber is actually a rather equivocal figure. As you say, he is in some ways a precursor to tempered liberalism, but in other ways stands apart from later tempered liberals. Like tempered liberals, he was concerned with questions of political ethics. He was opposed to both political moralism and naïveté, on one hand, and, I suggest, also opposed to certain forms of brutal or complacent political realism, on the other.
At least as I read his writings, they point to the importance of ethos and anticipate some features of the ethos of tempered liberalism, particularly in their emphasis on responsibility, sobriety, integrity, an effort to remain steadfast in the face of disappointment, disillusionment and indeed disaster. In those respects he does set the stage for tempered liberalism. But his case also shows how some of these features and emphases on the pathos of political sobriety and pessimism could also develop in some very illiberal ways; Weber could be pretty brutal himself, and was attracted to some forms of authoritarian politics. But I suggest that despite those elements in Weber’s thought and those moments in his career there is in his general outlook a commitment to moral scruples and an opposition to ruthlessness, which isn’t always appreciated by scholars of his thought.
This is captured by a story I tell in the book about a meeting between Weber and Joseph Schumpeter in a Viennese café in 1918. Talking about the recent Russian Revolution, Schumpeter said how great it was that socialism was no longer merely theoretical but now had to demonstrate its viability in practice. And Weber angrily declared that imposing communism at Russia’s stage of development was simply a crime, that it would produce untold suffering and end in catastrophe. Schumpeter replied, “That might be, but it will provide nice laboratory for us to test this out.” And Weber said, “A laboratory pilled with heaps of human corpses,” to which Schumpeter responded “Well, that’s what all anatomy laboratories are.” Weber grew angrier and eventually shouted “This is intolerable!” and stormed out, while Schumpeter sort of looked after him and said “Who behaves like that in a café?”
This demonstrates that both the emphasis on the responsibility to be realistic, but also the rejection of ruthlessly cynical, morally neutral stance on politics are important features of Weber’s thought. They are features that you see intertwined with one another throughout tempered liberalism later on.
Lukács was of course a native of Budapest. Actually, my interest in Lukács started with a member of the Democracy Institute, János Kis, a great man and a hero of mine. He was someone who knew Lukács later in Lukács’ life, when Lukács was sort of an internal dissident, someone who had been very high up in the Hungarian Communist party. He had been essentially exiled from politics after 1956, but managed, unlike many of his colleagues, to survive.
Kis told me a story about Lukács, that in 1919 Lukács was serving as a political commissar in the Hungarian Red Army and at one point a battalion from Budapest fled in the face of the Romanian army. As punishment, Lukács ordered the battalion to be decimated. That is, one out of every ten men was randomly chosen to be executed. In the end, only a couple of people were actually executed, but Lukács did give the order, and what was remarkable, according to Professor Kis, to the end of his life, even after he had been a witness and to some extent a victim of Communist repression, Lukács still spoke proudly of this incident from early in his life. He still clearly thought that this ruthless willingness to kill his own men in punishment exhibited some form of virtue or moral excellence.
It really fascinated me how someone who was ethically scrupulous, serious and idealistic early in their life, and also so intellectually sophisticated, came to embrace political fanaticism and ruthlessness.
As I explored Lukács, I came to believe that in certain complex ways it was actually because he was so ethically serious and idealistic in certain ways and worked with certain categories or certain frameworks of moral purity and moral extremism that he was able to make this journey, which his mentor Weber had anticipated and described in his lecture “Politics as a Vocation.”
Lukács made this journey from a kind of moral purism to a ruthless Realpolitik – a really ruthless willingness to use force quite brutally in pursuit of one’s goals, and also willingness to compromise with Stalinism. Even though he was aware of its brutality, his friends were being executed, he remained loyal to communism in spite of all. I thought that illustrated a lot of what tempered liberalism was up against in terms of this unity or this alliance of idealism and ruthlessness.
In your analysis of tempered liberalism you focused on four main figures, other than Max Weber: Albert Camus, Raymond Aron, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Isaiah Berlin. Among their prominent contemporaries there were several other intellectuals of similar stature who you do not analyse in your book – Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott, to name just a few. May I ask why you have chosen to analyse these intellectuals in particular? How did the experience of the rise of totalitarian regimes and their ruthlessness shape the political views of tempered liberals? How did the liberal ethos inform their views on democracy and the dangers threatening it?
That is a difficult question. In writing a book there are always choices one has to make about what to include and what to exclude. There were a number of thinkers who I would have liked to talk more about in retrospect, though not necessary the particular thinkers you just mentioned, although of course they are really interesting and important. My selection of the figures and my decision not to look at prominent contemporaries of theirs, such as Hayek, or Popper, or Oakeshott, or Arendt, goes back to the definition of tempered liberalism. I narrowed my focus to thinkers who were centrally concerned with ethical challenges confronting liberalism and who defended liberalism in terms of an ethos or an ethic.
At the same time, there are strong affinities between individual thinkers I look at and a number of figures that you mentioned. For instance, the American political theorist Jeffrey Isaac published a really excellent book underscoring the affinities between Camus and Arendt. It is also somewhat controversial to associate Camus with liberalism. Isaac, for instance, suggests in that book that he’s a critic of liberalism. And he was early in life, but I make the case that he became reconciled to and influenced by central features of a liberal outlook.
In any case, I did think that the four figures I looked at centrally were both really interesting in their own right and also that there were significant affinities between them and that it could be illuminating to look at the ideas of each and compare them to one another, to talk about them as a particular group. I also thought that they were worth looking at in combination, because there are significant differences between them.
I wanted to bring out the way in which tempered liberalism seeks some sort of equipoise between realism and moral idealism, between individual commitment and the defence of individual independence from politics and from political movements. These four figures illustrate different forms that response can take.
I wanted to look at Camus and Aron, because they represent, as it were, the moralistic and realistic edges of a tempered liberalism. Camus’ political judgement, I think, was not so good at times because he was so concerned with questions of personal morality, rather than questions of political efficacy or political organization. Aron, on the other hand, sometimes countenances some troubling political moves because of his concern with maintaining political order. I also think they offer a valuable balance or corrective to one another by focusing on what the other one neglected or underemphasized.
And then Niebuhr and Berlin, who were inhabiting somewhat less unstable or conflictual political context, at least later in their lives, strike a somewhat steadier balance between these different poles. They also articulated social, psychological and ethical theories that I think add depth to tempered liberalism. So Niebuhr’s analysis of the moral and social psychology of human desire for power and self-righteousness and sinfulness, or Berlin’s theory of value pluralism and ethical response to value pluralism provide good theoretical grounding for, or an enrichment of, tempered liberalism.
There were other thinkers I could have focused on and wish that I had to some extent, but they would have also taken me further afield historically and geographically. There are Spanish thinkers, like José Ortega y Gasset, or Italian thinkers, like Norberto Bobbio, or, earlier on, Carlo Rosselli, who I now wish I had written more about. I might try to say more about him in the future but getting into the South European side of things and to the earlier twentieth century would have made for a rather sprawling book, and so I did ultimately focus on figures who inhabited a sort of North Atlantic setting.
Although I want to distinguish theirs from other forms of Cold War liberalism, or other forms of liberalism in this period, they were all major Cold War liberal intellectuals. In other words, there is also a historical interest in these figures and ways to talk about larger developments in liberalism through them that made them seem valuable or useful to look at.
One thing that you did not discuss at length in your book was the relationship between liberalism and neoliberalism. On the one hand, the focus on the ethical dimension of politics turns the focus away from economic questions; on the other, it seems to me that economic questions should not be completely bracketed out from the discussion of political ethics. After reading your book, one has the impression that these thinkers, except for perhaps Raymond Aron, did not pay much attention to economic issues. Is this correct? If so, where does that leaves us in terms of their relation to neoliberalism?
If I have given the impression that these thinkers did not pay much attention to economic issues, I have done them and also the reader a disservice. I do think it is true that, as you note, with the exception of Aron, they were not very concerned with economic theory, or the academic discipline of economics. Perhaps they were not so concerned with macroeconomics more broadly, and I think that it is something of a shortcoming.
On the other hand, they were trying to do a lot and engaged with a lot. It would be, I think, a lot to expect them to also master the discipline of economics, although Aron did that as well. But it is certainly the case that issues of economic well-being, or economic misery really, were crucial for both Niebuhr and Camus. In fact, that really drove them to enter politics in the first place.
Each of them undertook careful studies of concrete economic conditions and proposed practical policies. Camus, for instance, really got into the nitty-gritty of Algerian economic practices and what practical changes would be needed to combat famine in Algeria, which was a French colony back then. I think this does relate to ethics in so far as Camus’ ethical outlook really emphasized both the need to respond to human misery but also the need to do so in very practical and concrete ways. Not to get absorbed in more abstract economic theory, not to figure out in theory or in principle what will be best for economic growth and then just impose it on actual people. They paid attention to how people were living and to their actual needs.
Camus does not go off and read Marx, or Adam Smith, or Thomas Malthus, or John Maynard Keynes, to the extent that Keynes’ writings were available to him, to respond to famine in Algeria. He instead devoted a lot of time to learning different methods for drying figs, and thinking about which would be the most helpful to adopt. I think that Isaiah Berlin also cared quite a bit about problems of poverty and inequality, although it is true that he did not write very much about them, which is certainly an omission in his work.
Rather than saying that these figures were not interested in economics, I would say that they were critics of what you might call economism.
I should say that by economism I mean three separate though related things. The first is what we might call an economistic view of human nature and society – a tendency to see human beings as rationally self-interested individuals, so-called homo economicus. This was a way of viewing human beings and analysing human behaviour that tempered liberals just did not think was very helpful, and actually thought that it was in some ways politically and morally perverse or debilitating.
Another way of understanding economism is in terms of faith in some economic theory, or an approach to questions of politics and policy in terms of some economic theory. None of the figures I look at were dogmatically committed to, or put much faith in, economic doctrines. They looked more towards ethical and political principles and judgements, and were willing to experiment with different economic policies to figure out what could best serve these larger ethical and political goals.
That gets to the third possible meaning of economism, which is a tendency to put economics first and to really see politics as driven by the pursuit of certain economic goals or outcomes. Weber, who was appointed to a professorship in economics, in his inaugural lecture, in addition to some horrifically racist and social Darwinian things, also made the point that a purpose of the economic policy should be the formation of political orders and the formation of certain kinds of human beings, not the other way round. So politics and human action should not serve economic goals. Economic policy should serve political and ethical ideals.
The later thinkers that I look at, tempered liberals, were ethically concerned with alleviating human misery. They were concerned with the ethical implications of means used to pursue different goals, including economic goals. And politically they were concerned with preserving a liberal order against the dangers of tyranny, on the one hand, and anarchy, on the other.
As I said, they were willing to depart from classical liberal economic doctrine and to experiment with various different economic policies in order to avoid both human misery and the erosion of liberalism. This is one reason why Berlin especially, Aron to some extent, and Niebuhr after initial scepticism, were all very sympathetic to or even admiring of Roosevelt’s New Deal. It represented a pragmatic approach to them, which certainly addressed the economic issues, but was not hide-bound by economic doctrine.
There is a famous story that Roosevelt’s advisers came to him and said, “You know, based on these two rival economic theories we should do either this or that.” To which Roosevelt said, “Great, tell me how I can do both of them.” That was kind of somewhat cavalier but a very pragmatic and also ethically driven approach to things, because the goal was ultimately to alleviate the poverty and misery of the Great Depression. That Rooseveltian view I think appealed to these figures more than a more economically sophisticated or doctrinaire approach.
That brings me back to the question about tempered liberals and neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is also a pretty broad term and the one that has often been abused. What people tend to call neoliberalism involves some form of what I have called economism, i.e. a dogmatic commitment to a certain economic theory and a tendency to put that theory in pursuit of economic goals above ethical and political considerations.
I think tempered liberals would be far from, and even opposed to, neoliberalism, to the extent that neoliberalism has contributed to human misery and has undermined commitment to liberalism or liberal democracy by associating these with economic inequality and insecurity in austerity. I think that tempered liberalism represents an attractive and useful corrective to faults of neoliberalism. In fact, Berlin towards the end of his life was critical of what we now call neoliberalism – mostly in private correspondence, but he did express his misgivings about it.
That being said, by the same virtue I think tempered liberals would be sceptical of responses to neoliberalism that seek to answer it or supplant it with a revival of some kind of rival economic orthodoxy. They would not necessarily say “Neoliberalism is the source of all our problems but if we supplant it with some form of socialism, then everything will be better and everything will be fixed.” In fact, in their own lifetimeswere very much attuned to the dangers of a fanatical or an absolutist or a too dogmatic form of socialism as well. But they did think that the answer to the problems with socialism was not to reaffirm nineteenth-century economic liberal orthodoxy, or to try torevamp itin some way. They were very much opposed to the idea often associated with Hayek that “the freer the market, the freer the people.”
As a last question, I would like to ask you about the contemporary relevance of tempered liberalism. You made it clear that the dark times to which you refer in the book’s title are not merely a thing of the past. That is, not only were tempered liberals living in dark times, but we are as well. It most certainly looks like Vladimir Putin could provide another example of political ruthlessness, if you were to write a follow-up about more a recent history. On the other hand, much of the discussion today is focused on the renewal of our democratic institutions rather than on defence against some foreign totalitarian or authoritarian threat. In your book you assert that tempered liberalism offers “a perspective from which to think about politics today,” adding that because it is not a doctrine, tempered liberalism is “difficult to pin down or ‘operationalize.’”
Which lessons you drew from studying tempered liberalism might be applied in our own times? Could the moderation that tempered liberals embraced in their political ethics still be applicable in our contemporary political situation?
This is a very difficult question and clearly a particularly urgent, and absorbing one. As someone who is by training and profession a historian and a theorist primarily, I am not necessary the best one to try and answer it, not least since one of the burdens or messages of my work is that the ability of theory to guide us is limited. I think theory can to some extent sensitize us to certain problems and sensitize us to the dangers of some responses to those problems, but it cannot provide a formula or a set of answers that can be directly applied to those problems.
The need to focus on features of individual character and judgement and temperament as opposed to doctrine is certainly one thing that I would emphasize more generally. Connected to this, I also think that in thinking about the challenges to liberalism, the appeal or the power of alternatives to liberalism, the focus on ethos is important and also the focus on the ethical difficulties of liberalism.
I think that one thing that the figures on whom I focused emphasize is that liberalism itself is deeply ethically demanding and emotionally difficult. There is a great temptation to free ourselves from the burdens that it imposes – the burdens of accepting limits, the burdens of tolerating others, the burdens of allowing others freedom and not seeking to control everything, the burdens of having to practice a good deal of patience and forbearance and generosity towards others, and live with uncertainty, imperfection, incompleteness. These are very difficult for many people to cope with, and there is a great attraction to the ruthlessness, toughness, confidence and unapologetic brutality exhibited by many critics or rivals to liberalism.
I think that one can see this in the appeal and one might even say personality cult that has formed around the previous president of the United States. One can also see it in the spell that Vladimir Putin or for that matter Viktor Orbán continue to exercise, and indeed exercise over some intellectuals in Western countries. One irony perhaps is that many intellectuals on the contemporary right who are anything but communists, who are indeed anti-communists to the core, are nevertheless falling into some of the same ethical tendencies, some of the same disillusionment with liberalism as being too weak, too muddled,too compromised and compromising, as well as the worship of certainty and strength and ruthlessness that actually characterized intellectuals who fell in love with communism.
I think it is important to be reminded of the so-called treason of the clerks and where the romance with political strongmen and ideological ruthlessness leads, and how in retrospect we are critical of it or even horrified by it in a figure like Lukács. It is equally important to be reminded that there is an alternative, that there is another way of engaging in politics, which is ethically quite demanding and alsorealistic that really does take seriously and responds to the actual realities and demands of politics.
I do think that the liberals whom I look at and whom I call tempered liberals make a good case for the way in which liberalism is both ethically noble and inspiring, and also really necessary to defend us against disaster. They do offer a case for the virtues of liberalism and a model of how to live with both liberalism’s demands and the threats to it.
Much still remains to be done and much for us to do for ourselves. Tempered liberalism, or its model that is based on these particular thinkers, cannot really solve our problems for us. They can only point to certain problems, make us better understand what’s at stake at those problems, and suggest that it is possible to respond to them both realistically and humanely.
I wish that I could emulate Aron’s or Niebuhr’s astuteness on questions of foreign policy and international order, but I cannot really.
We do need to just be aware or be sensitive to the terrible, seductive allure of toughness and ruthlessness. That it provides a short term exhilaration and sense of confidence, but it does ultimately lead to terrible destruction.
Looking ahead more broadly, a great problem for friends of liberal democracy is to not only do more to alleviate economic misery and give people greater hope for the future, but also to provide a more inspiring ethical example. It is to provide a positive alternative to the model of strength through brutality and through moral insensitivity that we see in the figures of Trump or Putin.
The transcript has been revised as well as edited for length and clarity.
In collaboration with Ferenc Laczó.