Raymond Aron and the contested legacy of 'Cold War Liberalism'.

AuthorStewart, Iain

As liberalism's future appears increasingly uncertain, its history, we are often told, can help us to understand the illiberal present, and perhaps offer a way out. One aspect of liberalism's history that has been particularly contentious in this regard is what is now known as 'Cold War liberalism'. Some historians, including Timothy Snyder and Jan-Werner Muller, view Cold War liberalism as a source of inspiration for understanding and confronting the contemporary populist threat to liberal democracy, its 'principled pluralism' and 'self-critical spirit' offering a timely corrective to the cynicism and complacency of post-Cold War liberalism. (1) Others, like Helena Rosenblatt and Samuel Moyn, view Cold War liberalism as a part of the problem: in paving the way for the neoliberal revolution and justifying American military interventionism, they argue, it left an enduring legacy that must be overcome by rediscovering liberalism's 'lost' history as a progressive movement animated by a positive vision of the common good. (2)

This debate should be of interest to social democrats because the history of mid-century socialism overlaps with that of Cold War liberalism. Although they achieved political influence as an organised intellectual movement during the Cold War, the formative experience of most Cold War liberals was actually the interwar crisis of democracy, a period when the meaning of and boundaries between liberalism and socialism were in flux. A revalorisation of individual rights provided Cold War liberalism's liberal core, but the Second World War generated a broad, extra-liberal consensus on this, incorporating social and Christian democrats. Rather than being endogenous to a liberal tradition, Cold War liberalism was born from an anti-totalitarian reshuffling of the ideological pack. (3) This explains its hybrid quality: while Cold War liberalism steered to the right with its suspicion of mass democracy, on economic questions it was often closer to social democracy than to liberalism as conventionally understood at the time.

The case of Raymond Aron exemplifies all this. Aron achieved public renown as France's leading anti-communist intellectual during the Cold War, but much of his contribution to the mid-twentieth-century reinvention of liberalism originated from his response to the interwar crisis. For example, he was a leading theorist of the 'end of ideology' doctrine, which posited that the pursuit of growth in mixed economies offered a means of reconciling the interests of capital and labour, thereby ending the 'ideological' politics of left and right. (4) Despite its association...

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