September 1, 2023


Liberalism's sin was born in the Cold War: Himmelfarb disabused the Right of naive progressivism (Samuel Moyn, August 29, 2023, UnHerd)

Like many other Cold War liberals, Himmelfarb had a particular (and mistaken) diagnosis of how liberalism could easily self-destruct. If liberals called for too much emancipation and progress, she thought, they would connive with evil forces to bring them about. They would, in other words, easily fall for the communist promise to achieve good things through immoral means. And if they neglected Christianity's insight into the endurance of original sin, liberals would treat the state as a workable device of liberation and progress, rather than regarding it as a malignant expression of eternal depravity. The consequences, she warned, would be devastating, giving people who are tarnished by original sin the capacity to use state power to kill millions.

Though a Jew concerned about the abuse of minorities, Himmelfarb laid extraordinary emphasis on this point, in turn making Christianity integral to Cold War liberalism. While liberals had spent the prior century often viewing religious forces as an enemy, she called for a new liberalism based on Acton's Christian vision of sin. Acton, who had rejected "integralist" forms of Christian Right-wing politics that longed for a return to medieval theocracy, was principally important for reforming secular liberals who sought to secure freedom against secular totalitarianisms such as Nazi and Soviet tyranny. He recognised, Himmelfarb wrote, "the presence of eternal and absolute" morality, in contrast to liberals who "had no sense of the religious sanctity of those principles" and compromised away freedom.

Indeed, it was liberal Christianity, Himmelfarb wrote, that might turn out to be essential in a Cold War world that knew the threat of religious authoritarianism even as secular revolution could bring even worse oppression. "Clerics are not alone in carrying the banner of religion," she wrote. "They have been joined by a multitude of those who, in Acton's own time, would almost certainly have been in the camp of the opposition." Liberals needed to get over their anticlericalism, was the message, and use religion to save themselves.

It had to be the right kind of Christianity, of course. Acton was an Augustinian, and his vision of sin forbade excessive optimism. Humanity couldn't save itself; man's fallen nature made power a permanent threat. Instead, the Christianity useful for Cold War liberals saw God as the external judge on history, where the notion of secular progress supposedly leading to human emancipation was little more than an alibi for crime. For Acton, Himmelfarb explained, "history did not have a meaning or purpose in itself; it acquired meaning only by comparison with a fixed moral standard outside it, and purpose by fulfilling a moral end imposed upon it".

This Augustinian core of Cold War liberalism is often conveniently forgotten. In an otherwise excellent recent book, for example, Louis Menand paints a portrait of Cold War liberalism as a utopia of innovative modernism, rather than one rooted in the religiosity that suffused the Forties and Fifties.

Among the many gifts of Liberalism, few are more important than the understanding that the ideology of the Left/Right--their belief that they can use state power to impose Utopia--is at odds with immutable human nature.

Posted by at September 1, 2023 7:03 AM