Freedom from Fear: An Incomplete History of Liberalism
By Alan S. Kahan.
Princeton University Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 528 pages, $45.

Liberalism in Dark Times: The Liberal Ethos in the Twentieth Century
By Joshua L. Cherniss.
Princeton University Press, 2021.
Hardcover, 328 pages, $37.

Reviewed by Philip D. Bunn.

Recent years have seen an abundance of scholarship and public writing on the concept of liberalism, arguments over its merit, prophecies of its failure, diagnoses of its flaws, and speculations about its successors—if the rumors of its death have not been exaggerated. In the midst of the hubbub, certain studies of liberalism have pushed against the pessimistic tide. Scholars such as Duncan Bell (Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire, 2016) and Helena Rosenblatt (The Lost History of Liberalism, 2018) have offered insightful genealogies of liberalism that have complicated the story, showing that liberalism is and has always been far more diverse and far richer in theoretical content than the stripped-down Lockean liberalism held up as canon by some of liberalism’s critics. 

An abundance of excellent scholarship on liberalism and its history should be considered a boon to all those thinking deeply about politics, both liberalism’s proponents and critics. For the proponents of liberalism, a fleshed-out history and robust defense of liberalism’s successes offers firmer ground on which to stand. For the critics of liberalism, they are given the tools to more effectively define and critique the object of their ire for what it is, not what they stereotype it to be. An accurate assessment of liberalism ensures the critics are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and perhaps helps show whether or not there is any baby in the bathwater to begin with. 

Two more recent studies, both also published by Princeton University Press, contribute to this ongoing conversation in valuable ways. Alan Kahan’s Freedom From Fear presents a stunningly comprehensive intellectual history of liberalism as a term, a contested movement, and an ideal, ably showing its development across time, divergences within the tradition, and the failings that have led to contemporary challenges. Joshua Cherniss’s Liberalism in Dark Times offers a more hopeful narrative, pushing back against the intuition that liberalism has nothing to offer in terms of principle in the fight against totalitarian impulses, excavating examples of principled liberals who remained politically effective while refusing to succumb to ruthlessness. 

Kahan’s study begins, as any good one does, with definitions: “Liberalism is the search for a society in which no one need be afraid. Freedom from fear is the most basic freedom: if we are afraid, we are not free. This insight is the foundation of liberalism.” The natural question raised, of course is “afraid of what,” a question to which Kahan immediately turns: “What liberals fear is arbitrary power, and liberalism is about building a society in which we need not fear other people, whether singly, in groups, or, perhaps most of all, in uniform.” As Kahan demonstrates throughout the work, the precise things or people or ideas feared by liberals have been fluid over time. Some liberals are most concerned with the arm of the state, others with “religious fanaticism,” still others with poverty or with populism. 

These fears and their respective associated movements within liberalism are helpfully reproduced in tables that append the volume. Though Kahan cautions that these tables are “meant as an outline, not a complete representation,” they aid the reader in the narrative arc of the work (and aid the reviewer in handy summary). Kahan has organized the history of liberalism into something of an epochal framework, moving from Proto-Liberalism to Liberalisms 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 respectively. We are, Kahan ultimately argues, moving toward a fourth and as-yet-unknown manifestation of liberalism, as liberal responses to populist concerns take shape, and the future of politics and principle are both being determined. 

Each of these movements has associated thinkers. Proto-liberals, for example, include Adam Smith and Montesquieu, while Liberalism 3.0 was a contested time with thinkers ranging from Hayek and Isaiah Berlin to John Rawls and Judith Shklar. Any summary of the story Kahan tells here will do some violence to his care with the argument: in the 449 pages of the main text, Kahan has named sub-sections on 23 different thinkers, with many more treated as parts of broader headings. 

This book, then, is a valuable reference work as well as a sort of broader intellectual history; it bears keeping on the shelf to brush up on both original sources and on an impressive breadth of secondary scholarship. Kahan refers to commentators both old and recent, as well as pulling from an impressive breadth of non-English sources to ensure his summary of these thinkers is as fair as can be, in line with current scholarship. If you are interested in liberalism, its history, its forms, and the scholarship on the thinkers that characterize it, this book is essential. 

But more than a simple reference work, Kahan has provided readers with clarity on liberalism’s various manifestations that resists hasty stereotypes often leveled against it. Namely, Kahan identifies three “pillars” of liberalism (symbolically depicted on the front dust cover): political freedom, market economies, and moral character. These three pillars, Kahan argues, have been of concern to liberal thinkers from the proto-liberal period (see Adam Smith, for example). Kahan, of course, recognizes that these three pillars have appeared in various forms across the development he tracks: some liberals exclusively focus on markets, others on politics, others on morality. Some adopt two of the pillars but neglect a third, and so on in every possible permutation. 

The point is to complicate the simple narrative. Here, in this rich story, one would be hard pressed to find advocates for what is typically called liberal atomism, or even Lockean liberals who pronounce that humans are free of all non-consensual obligations. The liberal tradition is given depth and richness and color appropriate to it, and critics of liberalism would do well to consider all of these contours without radically simplifying the target of their ire. 

But it is important to note that intellectual history may only count for so much. Though few of these thinkers would be caught fully denying the importance of associational life or the ties that bind in religion or family, could it nonetheless be the case that their ideas lead to these results? In other words, while Kahan excellently demonstrates that various liberals have advocated for all three “pillars” in concert, the relative strength of their arguments is left for the reader to assess. Could it be the case that, while superficially touting the importance of moral character, liberalism has left us without the resources to cultivate that character? This seems to be the argument of the whole host of critics of liberalism, and an argument that may be no less persuasive for the more complicated tale that Kahan has provided. 

This may be where Cherniss’s work complements Kahan’s in effective ways. Cherniss’s study differs from Kahan’s in both intent and scope. Rather than attempting to present a comprehensive history of liberalism, Cherniss hones in on a particular time period where liberals were tempted to cede ground to illiberal politics, and to engage in a politics of what he calls “ruthlessness.” Liberalism appears disadvantaged when matched up against more holistic, thick ideologies that make claims about all of life, that provide broader narratives and goals to the people who adopt them. In dire times, such as the bloody twentieth century, liberals are forced to grapple with the question asked by Tolkien’s Theoden: “The world changes, and all that once was strong now proves unsure. How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate?” 

The characteristic divide between liberalism and various forms of illiberalism is captured in Albert Camus’s imaginative “Letters to a German Friend” that Cherniss treats at length. In these letters, Camus concedes to his fictitious interlocutor that those who are willing to commit murder, or what we would call genocide, have an immediate advantage over those principled folks who refuse to do so. This advantage, however, is not a reason to sacrifice liberalism, but is rather part of the appeal. Cherniss spends the book attempting to convince the reader that this gap between willingness to do whatever is necessary and a hesitance to do something against one’s principles is not so vast as to render the latter unworkable as a matter of practical politics. It is rather in their liberal principles that thinkers like Camus and Berlin, to take two of Cherniss’s examples, ground their principled stand against ruthless ideology. 

As works of intellectual history, neither of these books is precisely an apologia for liberalism, nor will they necessarily be persuasive to those whose critiques of liberalism are more thorough-going and well-considered. They do, however, form an important piece of the puzzle for liberalism’s proponents and critics. Kahan captures the broad scope of liberalisms, and carefully considers where our present liberalism, “liberalism 4.0,” may be headed as it attempts to mount responses to populism. Cherniss uncovers historical examples of principled liberals facing down the greatest existential threats the west has seen. Both stories should be carefully considered by those attempting to understand liberalism, its present form, and its future.

Philip D. Bunn is a Postdoctoral Fellow for the Department of Political Science and the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson University.

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