Cold War liberalism was a catastrophe—for liberalism. This distinct body of liberal thought says that freedom comes first, that the enemies of liberty are the first priority to confront and contain in a dangerous world, and that demanding anything more from liberalism is likely to lead to tyranny.
This set of ideas became intellectually trendsetting in the 1940s and 1950s at the outset of the Cold War, when liberals conceived of them as essential truths the free world had to preserve in a struggle against totalitarian empire. By the 1960s it had its enemies, who invented the phrase “Cold War liberalism” itself to indict its domestic compromises and foreign policy mistakes. That did not stop it from being rehabilitated in the 1990s, when it was repurposed for a post-political age. A generation of public intellectuals—among them Anne Applebaum, Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier, and many others—styled themselves as successors to Cold War liberals, trumpeting the superiority of Cold War liberalism over illiberal right and left while obscuring just how distinctive it was within the broader liberal tradition. 1989 ushered in the global triumph of freedom, but on Cold War liberalism’s distorted terms.
Then came the election of Donald Trump in 2016, which unleashed a great war over liberalism—a polemical one, at least—and prompted yet another resurgence of Cold War liberalism’s core ideas. Patrick Deneen’s much-discussed assault, Why Liberalism Failed (2018), was met by a crop of liberal self-defenses, almost all of them explicitly or implicitly attempted in Cold War terms. Francis Fukuyama, Adam Gopnik, and Mark Lilla all wrote book-length versions of why Cold War liberalism still had legs, but literally thousands of essays and websites, and even whole magazines such as The Atlantic, offered the same message in frantic response to Trump’s breakthrough. Organized as much against the left as the right, these defenses not only rang hollow; they have failed to forestall the political crisis they promised to transcend. The result has been the reversal of Cold War liberal triumph into today’s mood of desperation and despair that has left liberalism on the ropes, hated by a left and a right that now both propose to move beyond it. In the last several years, of course, a few right intellectuals of Deneen’s ilk have continued to call for a vague “post-liberalism,” the main actual function of which sometimes seems to be to bait Cold War liberals into reasserting their creed.
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.
Trilling spent the decade after 1933 in ideological transition. He and his life companion, Diana Rubin, emerged from fellow traveling, registering their first public dissent in 1934. It was thus perhaps no accident that his first form of therapy, in choosing his dissertation topic in the midst of his communist flirtation and completing it as he weaned himself from it, was the Victorian mandarinism and moralism of Matthew Arnold—who hoped to see the ascendant middle class educated in great books to ensure that civilization would not become coarse. Trilling came by his Anglophilia more honestly than most Cold War liberals who shared it. While his lineage on both sides traced back to Bialystok, it was formative that both his grandmother and his mother had been born and raised in England—and adored it. Trilling was unsure how to rescue liberalism, but Arnold’s brief for high culture in Culture and Anarchy (1869) and other writings offered a starting point.
In the book on Arnold he published in 1939, Trilling was already aware that he was indulging in nostalgia, celebrating the best that has been thought and said. He would go on to teach in Columbia’s great books program for decades, but recognized that it hardly offered a credible politics on its own. On the one hand, he was amazingly open about the need for cultural elites to anticipate and guide democratization, perhaps permanently. “Democracy assumes the ability of all men to live by the intellect,” he wrote. But “we surely must question with Arnold the number of those who can support the intellectual life, even in a secondary way as pupils of the great.” On the other hand, Trilling understood that cultural mandarinism couldn’t solve the more basic problem: liberals were perpetually shocked by their limits and opponents, not anticipating them and sometimes reinforcing their strength. Reformers acting in the name of liberalism frequently helped its enemies (read: communists) out of enthusiasm for progress. “Surely if liberalism has a single desperate weakness,” Trilling explained four years later in a book on E.M. Forster,
it is an inadequacy of imagination: liberalism is always being surprised. There is always the liberal work to do over again because hard upon surprise disillusionment follows and for the moment of liberal fatigue reaction is always ready—reaction never hopes, despairs or suffers amazement.
What would it take, Trilling asked, to invent a reformed liberalism that would stop being surprised by evil—a liberalism aware that people are imperfect and that utopianism makes things worse, not least by co-opting good intentions and high ideals for bad ends and violent evils?
Trilling’s answer was psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud was the greatest “master of reality,” he argued, not least in his awareness of inborn aggression, with life haunted perpetually by a death drive. In a pivotal letter explaining his loss of political faith to a friend, written in the summer of 1936 weeks after the Great Purge trials had begun, Trilling commented on the need to “completely overhaul” not just his ideas but also his “whole character.” If “every revolution must betray itself,” it was because “every good thing and every good man has the seeds of degeneration in it or him.”
Trilling is not responsible for Freud’s popularity; he presupposed it. Scandalized by the vulgar Marxist tract by Reuben Osborn, Freud and Marx: A Dialectical Study (1937), which presented psychoanalysis as an adjunct to Stalinism, Trilling became one of the many who over the succeeding decades took Freudianism to sound the death knell of socialism. It helped that Freud had himself been an Anglophile “since boyhood,” as Trilling noted.
Trilling’s first public comment on Freud and his significance occurred as part of the memorialization of Freud’s 1939 death. Asked by Kenyon Review to reflect on the significance of psychoanalysis for literature, Trilling argued that Freud had established a parallel route to liberal complexity to rival the creative artistry that had long been the best guide for those guarding against idealism and simplification. Trilling insisted that Thomas Mann had been wrong to imply that Freud intended to legitimize, let alone unleash, passion; psychoanalysis acknowledged its share in order to civilize and domesticate it. “If Freud discovered the darkness for science he never endorses it,” he wrote. Both literature and psychoanalysis were sources of a realistic assessment of human limitation that would allow the refounding of liberalism beyond idealism.
As Trilling saw it, far from being a liberator on behalf of love and sex alone, Freud was a stern moralist conceding aggression and death their inevitable shadow over love and life. Freud’s later theorizing that posited inborn hatred, so controversial among psychoanalysts, moved beyond the simpleminded idea that realism is about managing pleasure so that its pursuit neither destabilizes civilization nor is so vigilantly policed in its name to lead to neurosis.
For Trilling, this recognition of basic human aggression—“the crown of Freud’s broader speculation on the life of man,” Trilling wrote—entailed tragic limits to high aspirations in personal and political life, and dictated “the small and controlled administration of pain to inure ourselves to the greater doses which life will force upon us.” If love and hate were in permanent standoff, a liberal idealism that failed to incorporate a sense of its own limits suppressed the complexity and variety that literature registered, while also putting civilization itself at risk when it played into the hands of its enemies. “Not being simple, [man] is not simply good,” Trilling concluded. “He has, as Freud says somewhere, a kind of hell within him from which rise everlastingly the impulses which threaten his civilization.”
Trilling began to mobilize Freud to reform liberalism in this way well before World War II, but he repeated these arguments over the next decade and throughout The Liberal Imagination, in which the Kenyon Review Freud essay was reprinted. Trilling found it especially appalling, therefore, when some tried to rebuild political hope within psychoanalysis, as if Freud’s perspective had not wrecked it definitively.
In 1942, for example, Trilling dismissed psychoanalyst Karen Horney’s progressivist revisions as “symptomatic” of “one of the great inadequacies of liberal thought, the need for optimism.” Prettifying the sink of human evil and pretending that individuals could save themselves from pathology was a reversal of the whole point of psychoanalysis, far beyond the examination room. “Her denial or attenuation of most of Freud’s concepts is the response to the wishes of an intellectual class which has always found Freud’s ideas cogent but too stringent and too dark,” Trilling charged, crediting the founder for “daring to present man with the terrible truth of his own nature,” and condemning the follower for doubts.
Freudianism also affected the theory of freedom. Trilling’s approach to the concept was different—in some ways opposite—from Berlin’s theory of “negative liberty.” According to psychoanalysis, Trilling argues, people are constrained in the control they can win from their passions and should have in their self-making, and they must use what freedom they do have for the sake of self-control. “The Freudian man may not be as free as we should like,” Trilling surmised, “but at least he has insides.” To put a more positive spin on it, Trilling took Freud to be saying that responsible freedom was won in and through bowing to necessity and exercising self-management. As Trilling put it beautifully in a review of Freud’s last book on the front page of The New York Times Book Review in 1949, “Like any tragic poet, like any true moralist, Freud took it as one of his tasks to define the borders of necessity in order to establish the realm of freedom.” Cold War liberalism may call for noninterference from the outside but is premised on interference with oneself.
But Trilling’s call for a self-purgation of liberal hope arguably functioned too well—so well, in fact, that anti-utopianism became its own form of tragedy, with a need to submit to “reality” part of the delusion. One could even speculate, in a psychoanalytic spirit, that Trilling’s path to defending a liberalism of constraints and limits, obsessed by the likelihood that good ideals would be perverted into evil outcomes, reflected not so much insight into eternal human nature as Trilling’s own ideological trauma. He was an idealist so appalled by the experience of the 1930s that he rationalized out of it a new form of liberalism—like so many others who became what Shklar called “survivalists,” prioritizing safety and self-preservation amid the ruins of expectation. The result was a liberalism with few hopes, disturbed by ideological passion, frightened of risk, and indentured to stability—all surrounded by an Arnoldian frame that counseled elites to teach idealists that Western civilization was worth protecting and threatened mainly by their own false optimism.
Still, Trilling’s critique of his former idealism mourned its loss. He couldn’t altogether relinquish the liberalism he struggled to make more “mature” and “realistic”—to use two of his favorite words. Trilling’s wartime essay on Tacitus, inspired by the publication of his classicist colleague Moses Hadas’s Modern Library edition of the Roman historian’s works, provides the best evidence. Tacitus, Trilling observes, was above all a psychologist; he refused to look past death and pain. With the jaundiced eye he cast on imperial folly, Tacitus counseled emotional control, contemplatively rising above it. But Trilling also insisted that the Roman historian consciously understood himself to come in the aftermath of an idealism he could preserve only through noting its absence—its unavailability to later, “mature” observers. “The republic had died before his grandfather was born,” Trilling wrote, “and he looked back on it as through a haze of idealization” in “an aftermath which had no end.” The postwar Marxist Theodor Adorno, himself in mourning, famously remarked that philosophy “lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” One might say that Trilling saw Tacitus making the same rueful observation about contemplation in relation to action: the only thing now was to mourn in the ruins of aspiration.
Arnold had opened Culture and Anarchy by calling himself “a liberal tempered by experience, reflection, and renouncement.” Trilling presented Cold War liberalism that way, but he also acknowledged the costs of renunciation. From this same perspective, in his celebrated reading of William Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode,” Trilling expressed ambivalence about the political choices he was making in his path to Cold War liberalism, preserving idealism only by cutting himself off from it, with “sorrow of giving up an old habit of vision for a new one.”
It is perhaps Trilling’s 1947 novel The Middle of the Journey that provides the best aperture on his ambivalent renunciation of youthful hope. The conventional reading views the novel as an apologia pro vita sua, a defense of Trilling’s own path. But more plausibly, the novel reveals that Trilling did not believe in simpleminded transcendence of liberal radicalism. His achievement of Cold War liberalism was complex—even self-hating.
Set in the 1930s, the novel traces three trajectories through progressive aspiration. One is an idealistic tenacity that refuses to learn what the communist flirtation teaches about its own false expectations, another a conservative turn that goes to the opposite extreme, and a final one—Trilling’s own—that retains a liberal outlook while correcting for earlier enthusiasm.
The book is a thoroughly Freudian affair. Drafted in 1946–7, the project began, Trilling later recalled, as a novella “about death—about what had happened to the way death is conceived by the enlightened consciousness of the modern age.” It opens with John Laskell, the reforming liberal, going to Connecticut for convalescence with his progressive friends after a battle with scarlet fever, a near death his friends simply cannot accept. Trilling explores a death drive that leads humanity to desire death and work toward it. Laskell is fascinated and troubled by his recollection that he had never been happier in life as when he was on the brink of extinction, near the dissolution of self that was paradoxically comparable to the antediluvian joy of “unborn children.” In this, it is hard not to hear Trilling dramatizing Freud’s theory that the death drive returns through a dissolution of life. In view of this drive, Freud was forced to “abandon the belief” in “an impulse towards perfection,” because of the tempting “backward path that leads to complete satisfaction”—not merely of the womb, but of what Laskell calls “not being born.”
In contrast there are the naive progressives, who stand for life in a pure and unalloyed sense—always looking forward, not in an aftermath without end but a prologue to an unending future. When Laskell arrives in Connecticut, his progressive caretakers cannot even bring themselves to use the word “death,” a horror beyond contemplating. “Life could have no better representatives” than these liberals, the narrator says, and they certainly are represented as confused—in denial about the limits antagonism and mortality impose. Their “passionate expectation of the future,” in the name of those “all over the world, suffering, or soon to suffer,” is morally obtuse. Reforming liberalism is repeatedly likened to accepting the reality of death, for example when Laskell struggles to explain to his caretakers what it meant for their conservative friend to abandon utopianism: “People actually do die.” The novel is also, of course, about avoiding becoming “the blackest of reactionaries” in the process—like the real-life conservative model of Cold War convert Whittaker Chambers—but even that is represented as being more open to death and experience than unreformed liberalism. “You couldn’t live the life of promises without yourself remaining a child,” Laskell learns.
For all its insistence that liberals accept mature wisdom, the novel never puts to rest the possibility that the child is the father of the man. Laskell’s own self-reform, as he adjusts his optimism about helping others to fit with what he learns from reflecting on death, is anything but triumphant; it is merely better than the alternatives of progressive optimism and Christian pessimism, since neither childish innocence about the human condition nor adult acceptance of death seem plausible. Moreover, the novel dramatizes Trilling’s disappointment with his own limiting decision to become a literary critic. He takes an exceptional foray into literature—The Middle of the Journey is the only literary text he would write—to portray a protagonist who abandons a youthful desire for literary achievement for the mature role of technocrat, never being “great” and only “useful.” “When I do write, I’m just a critic of other people’s work,” Laskell remarks at one point. “Critics make life miserable for people,” a child replies.
Perhaps most revealing, the novel ends by mourning the death of idealism, which is very different than just giving it up as a mistake. The child who makes a dig at critics, it turns out, has a heart ailment she doesn’t know about. At the climax of the novel, she dies. The progressive caretakers cannot recognize the event as tragic because they cannot accept death—or the guilt of those who are complicit with it—even when they witness it. The convert to Christianity sees the child’s hope as a false lure, for all people are sinners. Laskell’s truth is about remaining dispassionate and uncommitted, but it is also about living through the death of idealism and, while marking its limits, mourning its loss ever after. Cold War liberalism’s entanglement from an idealism it could never disavow entirely made it a bereaved liberalism.
In her memoir of their life together, Diana Trilling wondered whether her husband’s “friends and colleagues had no hint of how deeply he scorned the very qualities of character—his quiet, his moderation, his gentle reasonableness—for which he was most admired in his lifetime and which have been most celebrated since his death.” They might have gotten some hint had they read his novel.
Trilling returned to Freud again and again through the Cold War, evolving his “uses” for psychoanalysis as his own stance was buffeted by challenging events and generational change. In 1953, in spite of all his hard work, Trilling complained that “Freud’s doctrine has been with us for nearly fifty years and it contains the elements for a most complex moral system, yet I know of no attempt to deal seriously with its implications, especially its moral implications.” That call was taken up most directly by Philip Rieff (at the time, Susan Sontag’s husband), whose Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959) defined its era. Rieff’s publisher pulled enthusiastic lines of Trilling’s reader’s report as a cover endorsement. For Rieff, who referred to Trilling as collective “teacher,” Freud was a moral educator, ushering in the age of “psychological man” and a disconsolate happiness within the terms of hopelessness.
Attempts to marry Marx and Freud became popular in the 1960s. Though he was dismissed as a “lightweight” in intellectual historian Paul Robinson’s 1969 survey of such ventures, The Freudian Left, Trilling nonetheless took detailed notes on the book, focusing on the criticism of Civilization and Its Discontents offered by Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich it summarized. The effort helped Trilling prepare for the defense of his version of psychoanalysis in his last and most significant book, Sincerity and Authenticity, published in 1972 three years before his death. Tracing ideals of self-knowledge and self-realization, Trilling warned against the increasing popularity of making Freud serve progressive causes. The entire point of psychoanalysis, Trilling insisted, was to impose the limits of harsh self-discipline on expectations of change.
Over the decades Trilling’s readers have wondered whether, by establishing a Cold War liberalism only a hair’s breadth from conservatism and indeed neoconservatism, he prepared their ascendancy. Literary critic Joseph Frank, for one, conceded that Trilling had achieved perfect equipoise between left and right in The Liberal Imagination, but he also argued that Trilling quickly moved from a vision of literature educating politics to one in which culture displaced politics. If Trilling had once made room for constraint in the name of credible liberty, soon “for man’s own protection Mr. Trilling keeps recalling him to his earth-bound condition.” Freud’s aura had enabled Trilling to do so “without feeling it as a self-betrayal.”
And as a matter of fact, Trilling’s work did have direct relations to the origins of neoconservatism (which had its true roots in the 1930s and 1940s rather than merely in response to the 1960s), even if Trilling himself never went all the way. Irving Kristol published one of his earliest essays on Trilling in 1944, reserving highest praise for Trilling’s denunciation of a self-righteous liberalism that reached “a kind of disgust with humanity as it is” in the name of “a perfect faith in humanity as it is to be.” Kristol’s partner Gertrude Himmelfarb, who expended all her energies to conscript Trilling retroactively into the neoconservative movement and then cast herself as his devoted follower, testified how deeply she had been shaped by the edgy piece that Kristol discussed.
Far more important than the extent of Trilling’s links to conservatism or neoconservatism, however, is the way he fundamentally refashioned liberalism itself, the political and psychological goal closest to his heart. In this he epitomized all Cold War liberals, who themselves insisted that the liberalism they had inherited required drastic renovation and revision: a break from the liberal past in the name of liberal survival. By renouncing what had once made liberalism radical in a twin move of resignation and self-protection, Trilling cut himself off from the hopes he had once nurtured, even as he memorialized them.
Is that all we can do? Liberalism’s nineteenth- and early twentieth-century strains—the ones that Trilling self-consciously overthrew—are better places to start in exploring liberalism’s far reaches. Emancipatory before the Cold War—a doctrine committed most of all to free and equal self-creation, as well as accepting of democracy and welfare (though never enough to date)—liberalism can be something other, something far more, than the Cold War liberalism it has become.
The founders of liberalism in the nineteenth century—such as Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville—had been Romantics committed above all to a culture of individuality and self-making among free and equal citizens. Like Trilling, the personal was political for them, and they sought political institutions that were supposed to make the self-making they cared most about more likely. Very much unlike other Cold War liberals, who often blamed Romanticism for totalitarianism, Trilling responded to his ideological trauma by refusing to abandon it. Instead, he buried this earlier liberalism deep in his psyche, setting up controls that would keep it from the devastation he thought psychic aggression would lead to. But why live in sorrow for what we have to give up, especially if it is not as risky as Trilling supposed?
Whether liberalism deserves to survive depends entirely on whether it can recover what Trilling preserved from the controls he mistakenly placed on it. If liberalism is to be freed from its Cold War foreshortening, one advocate for doing so might be Trilling himself.
Editors’ Note: This essay is adapted from Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times by Samuel Moyn, published on August 29 by Yale University Press.
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