View from

Grappling with Liberalism

(The Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate in February, 1979 by Ad Meskens)

Modern liberalism, equally, cannot go on as it is at the moment, veering toward destruction, becoming ever more decrepit and ineffectual, incapable of meeting the challenges—domestic, geopolitical, planetary—of the 21st century.”

There “used to be Hegelians, now there are nihilists,” complains Pavel Petrovich in Ivan Turgenev’s great 19th century novel Fathers and Sons. The progress-loving liberal aristocrat, a man of the previous age, an age apparently of principles, an age which recognized rights and obligations—the era, that is, preceding the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861—is miffed. Told that nihilism denotes a man “who doesn’t recognize anything,” who “approaches everything from a critical point of view…a man who doesn’t acknowledge any authorities, who doesn’t accept a single principle on faith,” Petrovich curtly responds that a nihilist is a person, rather, “who doesn’t respect anything.” 

For Evgeny Vasilev Bazarov, the “abominably cocky” self-professed nihilist at the center of Turgenev’s narrative, simply to condemn everything, or pull everything down, while neglecting to build something new in its place simultaneously is a perfectly legitimate course of action. No, it is the most useful thing a person could do, he proclaims. Cognizant, however, of the inevitable consequences of such rash and violent deeds—the substitution, namely, of “brute Mongol force” for civilization–Petrovich condemns Bazarov’s sentiments as satanically arrogant. The two men, the first a refined, if somewhat prissy and, maybe, complacent, romantic advocate of gradual reform, the second, a long-haired, lowly-born medical student, clinically scientific to the point, almost, of psychopathy, represent in pure form the two poles of generational conflict in post-emancipation Russia that Turgenev identified and depicted so powerfully in his magnificent mid-century novel. 

Perhaps it never went away. Perhaps generational conflict, intermingling, of course, with class, gender, and racial antagonisms, has been a historical constant ever since Turgenev wrote, the baton being passed merely from nihilists to anarchists and Marxists to reactionaries and fascists and authoritarians to new liberals and New Dealers to Fabians and social democrats to hippies and New Leftists and onto libertarians and, finally, so-called Third Wayists, according to time and place. Perhaps. But what is certainly clear is that generational conflict is alive and well-thriving, in fact—in today’s Western liberal democracies. 

It was little more than 30 years ago, after all, that liberalism’s permanent victory over its various ideological adversaries (or “the End of History,” as the Hegelian political theorist Francis Fukuyama famously put it) was being confidently announced, in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise. Now, though, liberalism is widely “denounced as a form of subtle bondage.” Universalism is condemned. Rights are disparaged. Reason is “convicted of domineering arrogance and enlightenment dismissed as retrogressive.”

We are told this–a simple point of fact–in the preface to Richard Bourke’s monograph, Hegel’s World Revolutions, which was released with Princeton University Press last year. An exercise chiefly in elucidating Hegel’s political ideas, Bourke, a Professor in the History of Political Thought at the University of Cambridge, nevertheless insists that “history records a process of liberation.” He recommends, also, Hegel’s disdain for “enthusiasm,” his exhortation that political reform must harmonize with the extant state of morality. What is rational ought to align broadly with what is actual. Bourke, in other words, holds views not entirely unlike those of Turgenev’s Petrovich. If Bourke, moreover, is nostalgic for an era when Hegel was not caricatured as a teleological thinker, creating the groundwork for totalitarianism, and when liberalism was not a byword for imperial tyranny and unfreedom in the metropole, we have modern-day nihilists too.

In his 2023 book The New Leviathans, for example, the philosopher John Gray cheerfully assures us that liberal civilization is dead. The “practice of tolerance has passed into history.” The notion of “‘Humanity’ is a dangerous fiction.” “There is no arc of history, short or long.” “If liberalism has a future, it will be as therapy against fear of the dark.” As with Bazarov–“Astonishing… these old-world romantic types!”—there is a hint of sadism in Gray’s analysis. For the most part, however, Gray is a quietist misanthrope. He coldly accepts that “Rights-based liberalism is as remote from twenty-first century realities as medieval political theory, if not more so.” A fatalist, who falsely presents as a realist, he urges us likewise not to mourn the liberal experiment but to adapt rather to a postliberal world. Contemptuous of the notion that history is a meaningful process and viewing humans as dangerous, fickle, and largely irrational animals, driven by destructive, unconscious desires, for Gray, there is only one liberal “still worth reading,” the original liberal of fear: Thomas Hobbes. 

Unlike Bazarov, Gray is not “untamed.” From a working-class background, the beneficiary of a grammar school education, he was assimilated early by the academic and literary establishments in the anglophone world. Nevertheless, leaning in to his residual outsider status, Gray is performatively unsentimental, adopting here—“Damned aristos”—a primarily Darwinian worldview. While Bourke’s book is decorously scholarly: exhaustively researched, laden with footnotes, its argument infused with nuance throughout, in The New Leviathans Gray essentializes, asserts, and exaggerates wildly. He can be forgiven for this, however, not because The New Leviathans is an insightful and persuasive text but because Gray is, in part, reacting to a different species of nihilist, the overindulged, “hand-reared” type, who does not recognize himself as such but who is deficient in respect and, therefore, a nihilist all the same according to Petrovich’s definition. 

Samuel Moyn, a Professor of Law and History at Yale University and author of the 2023 book Liberalism Against Itself, is a hand-reared nihilist. A proponent of perfectionism and progressivism, Moyn’s central argument in Liberalism Against Itself, a book which was first conceived and drafted as the prestigious Carlyle Lectures in the History of Political Thought at the University of Oxford, is that “Cold War liberalism was a catastrophe–for liberalism.” Moyn is more like Petrovich’s nephew, Arkady, Bazarov’s earnest and naïve friend, than Bazarov himself. He is not “arrogant, brazen, cynical and common.” Moyn, however, who happily publishes alongside writers who minimize the extremism of far-right figures such as French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and praise the bigoted anti-immigrant Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Conor McGregor, is undoubtedly irresponsible, casually throwing the word racism around in Liberalism Against Itself, distorting the views of his self-appointed liberal opponents like Fukuyama (a repentant social liberal now, not an unreflective apologist for liberalism “as it was”), while claiming that the liberal tradition has devolved “into a torrent of frightened tweets and doomscrolling terror” in the wake of the Capitol riot, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the threat posed by illiberal China. 

Exaggeration. Overreaction. At once both piously insouciant and mildly hectoring, this is Moyn’s phlegmatic, no, cool, assessment of liberalism’s defenders’ (Anne Applebaum, Timothy Garton Ash, Mark Lilla et al.) response to these events. Like Arkady, a “little softy liberal gent,” however “marvellous”–Bazarov’s additional descriptor for his friend–Moyn might be in person, in print he is a menace, tempting fate, when liberals ought to be mastering it. 

Both Moyn and Gray are trivilializers. But, crucially, they trivialize in radically different ways. Moyn, a well-meaning advocate of a liberalism which is not afraid of the state, can barely bring himself to acknowledge the horrors of totalitarianism and the omnipresence of cruelty in human history. Gray, meanwhile, sees totalitarianism everywhere and is extra-alert to the vicious proclivities of the human animal. They are both, that is to say, simultaneously enlightened and deluded. 

In Moyn’s account of the Cold War liberals’ “betrayal” of liberalism itself, he focuses on six thinkers: the political theorist Judith Shklar, the philosopher and intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher of science Karl Popper, the intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, and the literary critic Lionel Trilling. Although she later became a Cold War liberal, adopting a “survivalist approach” to political theory, Shklar is absolved of any guilt for helping to create the species of liberalism, which, by “libertarianising” liberalism on the one hand and getting too close to conservatism on the other, “left liberalism undefended at precisely the moment when the ideology of market freedom was becoming a threat.” Disregarding some of their own stated preferences–Berlin’s attachment, for instance, to “something like left or social democratic liberalism”—Moyn holds the Cold War liberals responsible for the emergence of neoliberalism and neoconservatism. He deploys Shklar, the Shklar of After Utopia, as a foil to the Cold War liberals’ supposed fear-inspired hubris, applauding her for railing against their ambivalence about the Enlightenment and their redefinition of freedom as “absence of constraint,” as opposed to “moral and intellectual self-fulfillment.” Chopping back and forth between a conceptualist approach to his subject, defining liberalism in advance and matching his material to his definition, and a nominalist one, taking a thinker’s self-understanding as the most important factor in assigning them a label, Moyn, therefore, treats the singular Arendt as a Cold War liberal too. 

The best lines in the book belong to Moyn’s Cold War liberals themselves, or indeed to their even more troublesome interlocutors. Himmelfarb wrote, for example: “A liberal…is one who reveres the good God, but who respects the devil.” Trilling argued: “Surely if liberalism has a single desperate weakness, it is an inadequacy of imagination: liberalism is always being surprised.” And the English historian Herbert Butterfield posited: “I don’t think passing judgement is the province of the technical historian.” Paucity of imagination and the proclivity to judge usually correlate. Certainly, the will to understand in Liberalism Against Itself is sorely underdeveloped. Whereas Shklar is a foil, Arendt is a scapegoat. Charged with epitomizing the Cold War liberals Eurocentricity and racism, she satiates Moyn’s evident need to show he’s on the right side of history. Suppressing complexity—compassion, one might say—Moyn opts for polemic over many-sided historical reconstruction. 

Focusing on one-dimension only, he repeatedly draws attention to the “contradiction” in the Cold War liberals’ thinking over their support for Zionism, the one statist liberation movement they—overwhelmingly Jews themselves, some of whom had fled Nazism—were able to tolerate. Their morality, in other words, was “geographical,” which may well be true; it is also, however, explicable. Arendt was interned in what later became Vichy France. Berlin was an eyewitness, as a seven-year-old boy, to the mob justice of the February Revolution in Petrograd. Liberals or not, these men and women knew a thing or two about political violence. That they were able to justify the violence that brought Israel into being, while censoring the use of political violence in decolonial struggles elsewhere is perhaps not as grossly hypocritical as Moyn urges us to think it is, which is not, of course, to say it is right, either. 

People “actually do die,” Moyn writes in a revealing passage—or “slip,” rather—commenting on Shklar’s early death at the age of 63 at the end of the book. Indeed they do, often at the hands of other people motivated by utopian visions of a socially harmonious, post-political world. As Gray reminds us, by the early 1930s, in the Soviet Union, “the nobility and intelligentsia had mostly disappeared…Then, beginning in August 1936, the new communist elites were slaughtered.” In the Mongolian People’s Republic the population, by 1932, fell by a third—the highest death toll exacted by any communist regime, the Cambodian regime of Pol Pot, Mongolia’s closest rival, eradicating between 13% and 30% of the Cambodian population. While Himmelfarb yoked liberalism to original sin with the help of the 19th-century Anglo-German Catholic critic of power Lord Acton, Trilling yoked it to Freud. 

Dismissive of the notion of “psychological man”—the belief, namely, that human nature is dark and aggressive, and requires self-management—either religious or secular, Moyn attempts to resurrect Marx and Marxism, describing the latter as “a rival vision of a free and equal future” and the former as a “crucial source” for many pre-Cold War liberals. This is both crass and wishful-thinking at its crudest, the abnegation of the historian’s craft. Moyn manages to name one liberal: John Hobson, ignoring, in Britain at least, the marked preference for August Comte over Marx, who was barely read. With Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, and E. M. Forster, likewise, the liberal penchant for cooperation turned into a penchant for Kropotkinesque anarchism and the Carpentarian Simple Life. As for Moyn’s complete lack of interest in the expressly dictatorial intent of Marxism or what Marxism, historically, has meant in practice, the bizarre utterance, “people do actually die,” is surely some kind of unconscious cue: Don’t be a naif, Samuel. Maybe it is not only 19th-century liberalism which merits a “second look,” then; perhaps Freud, and Arendt and Trilling, and Himmelfarb and Berlin, Popper even, deserve proper attention too? 

The 19th-century liberals Moyn counsels us to return to are liberals such as Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, J. S. Mill, and T. H. Green. While the Cold War liberals, with the notable exception of Berlin, proscribed romanticism, these were liberals who were also romantics, liberals who treated “self-creation” as the highest liberal value; while the Cold War liberals, similarly, turned their backs on socialism, they were liberals who were sometimes socialists too, though Owenites and Fourierists rather than Marxists; they were liberals, also, who, instead of inserting Hegel into an “anti-canon of modern emancipation,” adopted Hegel’s “historicism,” arguing that there is indeed progress in history. 

Again, Moyn may overstate Green’s role in the formation of the British welfare state (it seems that Moyn has not read Green directly). All the same, Green was a proponent of positive liberty, a version of liberty which requires an interventionist state to make liberty actual. For all the book’s flaws, Liberalism Against Itself offers a salutary lesson to those predisposed to take Gray at his word: Hobbes is far from the only liberal thinker worth reviving. At the same time, there are salutary lessons for Moyn in Gray’s provocative thesis. Liberalism, clearly, is not dead. But it is scarcely in good shape either. In some countries indeed, including Moyn’s own, the United States of America, it would appear in fact to be on life support. 

Gray, to be sure, is no less prone to hyperbole than Moyn. Plainly, society in many Western liberal democracies (Gray fails to differentiate, referring simply to “the West” throughout) has become excessively censorious and controlling. Non-conformity is not tolerated like it once was. The “harm principle” formulated by J. S. Mill (i.e., the notion that the “only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”), about which Gray seems to have forgotten, is often no longer observed, or else, the notion of “harm” is expanded to an unsustainable degree. Be that as it may, we have not, however, created “artificial states of nature,” where, as with the 20th-century experiments in communism, people cannot trust their family members, workmates, friends or lovers, where people live, that is, in constant fear of denunciation. Not even close, and to suggest otherwise is tedious and absurd. (Gray, after all, is still commissioned to write books for Penguin.) Western states are not “new Leviathans,” like Russia and China, where subjects are not only offered security against internal and external threats, but where their souls, in addition, are engineered. Liberal culture has certainly been challenged in recent years—by right-wing populists on the one hand, and by a “hyperbolic version of liberalism” on the other. But we are not in danger, yet, of becoming Homo Sovieticus. Catastrophizing about the extent to which liberal democracies have become more like neo-totalitarian states, Gray is nevertheless right to argue that hyper-liberal ideology, or woke thinking, is a symptom of Western decline. Here, Gray’s analysis is peculiarly piercing. 

Defending Marx as a rigorous and serious thinker but not a prophet, obviously, to follow, Gray illuminates the strong class component of wokeism. A revolt, chiefly, of the professional bourgeoisie, one function of woke movements, Gray astutely observes, “is to deflect attention from the destructive impact on society of market capitalism. Once questions of identity become central in politics, conflicts of economic interests can be disregarded.” The professional bourgeoisie can appear radical, in other words, without being very radical at all, primarily elevating people—women, LGBTQ+ people, the neurodiverse, members of ethnic and racial minorities—who belonged to the professional bourgeoisie already. This by itself is not negligible. Yet wokeism is, undoubtedly, “a career as much as a cult.” In a period of elite overproduction, hyper-liberal values have been commodified. They’ve become weapons with which surplus elites wage war for economic survival. While some proponents of wokeism are evidently sincere – there’s no shortage of true believers—others are deeply cynical. Mobility between classes? Not interested. Deaths of despair? Collective shrug. Fentanyl? Never heard of it. Prepared to rejig the oligarchic system to which they belong, allowing in a smattering of the hitherto estranged, they have no intention to dismantle it. 

This is not neo-feudalism, as some analysts claim, Gray argues. “Feudal societies conferred benefits on their subordinate populations.” Twenty-first-century serfs, by contrast, are simply abandoned to anarchy and anguish. It is no surprise, Gray goes on, that people seek solace in populist leaders. Although he offers an excessively rosy picture of the Middle Ages, Gray is not wrong. Furthermore, the instrumentalization of the discourse on race by self-serving, career-oriented elite actors has perpetuated and intensified racial divisions. At once both parochial, ignoring the long history of institutional slavery and eradicating the substantial differences in national experience in how racial oppression has played out, and fundamentally misguided—shallow, performative collective self-flagellation is not how racial divisions are eroded—woke discourse on race “is a symptom of the disease it pretends to cure.” If racial and class cleavages continue to be so poorly managed by solipsistic elites it is perfectly conceivable, as Gray frankly acknowledges, that the United States “could slide into a chronic condition of low-intensity civil war.” Elsewhere, power will be handed to right-wing populists. 

Hand-reared nihilists, simply stated, are apt to make a mess. Bona fide nihilists, meanwhile, are immeasurably more perceptive but more unreliable too. Keenly aware of liberalism’s existential dilemmas, Gray, for example, is gleefully resigned it seems to the nominal fact that the Western-led liberal order is over, either because he thinks the illiberal alternatives are preferable, which is possible, or if only to spite Steven Pinker—quite plausible too. Whatever the reason, Gray offers a counsel of defeat.

After excavating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasianism, an authoritarian and religious ideology which treats Russia as a civilization apart, Gray warns us that Russians are constitutionally ill-disposed toward liberalism. If despotic rule ends there, it will merely begin again after “a lengthy period of chaos and bloodshed.” China, too, “using illiberal Western ideas” (namely, the friend-enemy thinking of the German jurist Carl Schmitt, and the system of omnipresent prison surveillance designed by the British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham), is more likely to “bury the remains of the liberal West” than be persuaded that liberalism means anything other than nihilism and neglect. “What is under way in China,” Gray writes, half-approvingly, “is not simply a reversion to dictatorship but a vast political experiment: the project of surpassing the scientific and technological advances of liberal societies while preserving social cohesion by means of an intelligent despotism.”

Combining wisdom with ingratitude and delinquency, Gray claims, first, that the “task of the age is not to bind the new Leviathans, as was attempted in the late liberal era, but to bring them closer to what Hobbes believed Leviathan could be—a vessel of peaceful coexistence.” Second, the belief, he avers, that “a single form of rule is best for everyone is itself a kind of tyranny.” Gray, in short, prudently recommends moderation and, then, immediately descends into intemperate sophistry. Someone should tell him that caution in international affairs is compatible with moral absolutism: The principle of universal equality, actualized by a constitutional state, is indeed something worth having. Hegel, we learn from Bourke’s Hegel’s World Revolutions, certainly thought as much. 

According to Hegel, the doctrine that the “human being as human is free” was an epoch-making development—a development which had eluded both Greek philosophy and Roman jurisprudence. Originating in Christianity, it “marked the beginning of the end of slavery.” A “final revolution in consciousness,” modern history has been “a struggle to figure out its consequences.” 

Hegel narrated how human freedom was realized, arduously and protractedly, in a sequence of world revolutions that occurred over the course of almost two millennia. Bourke meticulously reconstructs how Hegel did so, concurring with Moyn that Popper and Berlin, as well as Michel Foucault—one of the many unconventional anarchist ghosts exorcised from Liberalism Against Itself—flagrantly mispresented Hegel when they equated him with neo-providential determinism and totalitarianism. 

The first section of Hegel’s World Revolutions is dedicated to the Kantian revolution in philosophy, the primacy, that is, the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant assigned to the role of reason in human affairs and the idea that a transformative insight can lead to a sudden break with the status quo. Reconceptualizing “the relationship between theoretical and practical reason,” Kant, alert to the ineliminable human propensity for evil, argued that “ethics could help secure rationality against self-corruption.” Kant, for Hegel, joined Socrates and Jesus Christ as a revolutionist in morals, and Hegel built on this foundation. 

In contrast to Kant, Hegel conceived of revolutionary transitions as more gradual and multi-faceted than they might at first appear. While it was true that there are decisive individuals in history—Alexander the Great passing out of “the school of Aristotle to become conqueror of the world”, Napoleon Bonaparte, “world soul” on horseback at the Battle of Jena—their paths had been prepared for them by a vast number of others—by the culture they inherited indeed—in advance. “Ideas and affairs had to be analyzed together.” In the second section of the book, Bourke turns his attention to Hegel’s interpretation of the French Revolution, a major milestone, he thought, in “spirit’s”, or Geist’s, journey to reach fruition but not its final destination. 

Typically presented as an uncritical supporter of the Revolution, toasting the storming of the Bastille on July 14th each year, Hegel’s attitude toward it was in fact “profoundly skeptical.” As one would expect from a scholarly account, Bourke does not reduce the Revolution to a single episode. It was made up of a series of stages, he acknowledges rather, which included internal insurrections and “counterstrokes against the original event.” Hegel was deeply critical of it all—the Terror, the republican constitution of Year I, Napoleon’s rule as both First Consul and Emperor, as well as the arrangements put in place under the National Assembly. 

Moving too quickly, repudiating mixed government and uprooting all differences, consequently, of “talents and authority with fanatical zeal,” Hegel saw the Terror as an “integral product of the original idealism, not a peculiar or unaccountable perversion.” It was not only Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobin faction he led who were responsible for the firing squads, the forced drownings, and guillotinings after 1792. In their eagerness to “revise the form of the state ‘from first principles and purely in terms of thought’,” taking flight from actuality or things as they were, more moderate leaders such as Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and the Marquis de Condorcet bore responsibility for the violence too. 

People could not, it turned out, be forced to be free. They could, though, be executed for insubordination or forced into submission

Hegel, likewise, charged Napoleon with taking a similar flight from reality in attempting to impose liberal reforms in European territories—Piedmont, Spain, Rome, Naples—where the population was hostile to “rational” institutions. Which is to say, while Hegel regarded “the passage from feudal to constitutional monarchy as one of the greatest achievements of European history,” he lamented the attempts of the French revolutionaries to go further than the circumstances of the time would permit. It was instructive, he argued, to compare the failures of the French insurgents, impatient to bend history to their will, with the successful reforms introduced into Prussia under Frederick the Great; for the Prussian King also abolished serfdom, established a free market in land, and created the right to choose one’s occupation. The Prussian Civil Code of 1794 may have been more limited than the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, but no blood was spilled to put its provisions into practice. Neither word was used at the time as they now are, but if we were to follow Moyn’s lead and adopt a conceptualist approach to intellectual history, Hegel was a conservative liberal. 

The final section of Hegel’s World Revolutions is turned over to the topic of the history of political thought as an academic sub-discipline. Bourke examines the reception of Hegel in history—a tale of pre-eminence and steady then rapid decline—and how the history of political thought, more generally, has been researched and written. Rejecting the kind of “moralism” embraced by the founding father of “Cambridge School” contextualism Quentin Skinner, which involves “trawling for buried treasure” as well as reconstructing historical contexts, the first, normative exercise tending to compromise the second, vitally, dispassionate one, Bourke suggests (ironically, yes, but no less persuasively) that “Hegel’s apprehensions about this approach should still hold.” The history of political thought, Bourke argues, should be diagnostic, as opposed to prescriptive. 

Hegel’s World Revolutions is, accordingly, not a prescriptive book. Yet, while Bourke may disagree, cleaving strongly to the young Skinner’s injunction to “do our thinking for ourselves,” the lessons it holds for today are unmistakeable. From Hegel’s perspective, the rise of “‘the moral point of view’ was one of the great accomplishments of the modern world.” It was also one of the most destabilizing. 

Hegel showed how morality severed from historical circumstances is destructive; how moral purity breeds fanaticism; how, paradoxically, good intentions do indeed pave the road to hell. He showed, also, how it enabled self-interest to masquerade as principle, how it “enabled hypocrisy to flourish in the guise of conscience.” Such hypocrisy, as we know from Gray, is still with us. So, too, is the problem of honest enthusiasm, a problem Gray tackles with the help of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons, Yevgeny Zemyatin’s We, and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and the example of Bolshevism—Jacobinism’s true heir—more broadly. It is a problem Moyn embodies in attenuated form, a problem which is all too evident, indeed, in modern academe where, increasingly, scholarship and propaganda amalgamate and, less frequently, collide. 

Enthusiasm will, of course, always be with us. But fanaticism, clearly, ought not to be encouraged, less still given free reign in institutions which socialize. Nor, however, should approval be given to the kind of juvenile pessimism that flippantly dismisses human rights as so much historical ephemera and finds the subjection to despotism not only conceivable, but preferable perhaps. If morality untempered by reality is apt to produce a subjectivity which is sociopathic, so too is glacial reason. 

Moyn was right about one thing: Alternative liberal futures are possible. Unlike Gray, Moyn summons Marx for the wrong reason. Instead of invoking Marx to foreground the concept of class once more, he reaches for Marx’s callow utopianism. Yet liberalism and socialism have been complementary. And they can be again. 

At the beginning of Fathers and Sons, Arkady, returning from university, surveys from a carriage the once industrious and prosperous but now impoverished and dilapidated region in which he was born: “It can’t, just can’t stay like this,” he thinks wistfully. “Reforms are essential. But how to go about them, how to start?”

Modern liberalism, equally, cannot go on as it is at the moment, veering toward destruction, becoming ever more decrepit and ineffectual, incapable of meeting the challenges—domestic, geopolitical, planetary—of the 21st century. Rather than satisfying its own “unconscious death-wish,” it should start by reforming itself, by recognizing the reality of class conflict, as Mill did in his Chapters on Socialism in 1869, by redistributing wealth more equitably, and by subordinating markets to the principle of the common good. We can start, that is, with Mill’s liberal iteration of “gas and water” socialism, a socialism which is both practical and in keeping with the extant state of public morality—a socialism, which in truly Hegelian vein, is liberal and conservative too.

Seamus Flaherty is a historian of ideas and the author of Marx, Engels and Modern British Socialism. He lives in the United Kingdom. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.