By David Kretz

Ewa Atanassow teaches political theory at Bard College Berlin. Currently, she is working on tensions between liberalism and democracy from a Tocquevillean perspective at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. I interviewed her about her latest book project, Liberal Moments, co-edited with Alan S. Kahan, which assembles a wide range of liberal voices from around the globe and from the 18th to the 20th century.

Contributing editor David Kretz spoke with her about non-Western developments of liberal theory, hermeneutic problems for historians of political thought, the opposition between liberalism and socialism (and its prospects for the 21st century), and, finally, the relation of liberalism to truth in the much bemoaned “post-truth” era.


David Kretz (DK): What is the purpose of your volume and what central commonalities, as well as recurring disagreements, between liberal thinkers have you found?

Eva Atanassow (EA): One key goal of the volume was to canvas the diversity of liberal persuasions across history and geography, and thus suggest that one cannot adequately speak of liberalism in the singular without further qualifications. We also aimed to show that many critiques of liberalism are internal to liberal thought; and that far from abstract theorizing, liberalism is a mode of political discourse tailored to concrete national contexts, striving to articulate and craft a vision of liberty in vastly diverse circumstances. What we found were widely differing answers to an enduring set of questions: e.g., about the meaning of freedom, the nature of its preconditions, and the ways to bring about and sustain these preconditions in the modern world.

For instance, a paradigmatic liberal concern that animated the 18th century revolutions and subsequent constitutional efforts was the danger posed by unconstrained political authority: a good government needs to be both capacious and benign, and these two dimensions may not go easily together. And so liberal thinkers have disagreed about how best to reconcile the two. Similarly difficult to answer is the question of the optimal relationship between society and individual. Mill’s “harm principle” is often considered as the classical liberal position, but it has hardly gone undisputed (as the chapters on T.H. Green and Isaiah Berlin show). Keynes and Hayek, both of whom identified themselves as liberals, were committed to free enterprise as an integral aspect of liberal society and yet elaborated very different visions of how to sustain the conditions for it.

The same thinker may set different priorities in different contexts (e.g. Tocqueville, an impassioned critic of state centralization, also critiqued the antebellum American Union as insufficiently centralized) or change views over time (e.g. Hu Shih’s development on the question of whether private property was essential to a free society).

For all of its diversity and inner disagreement, the bulk of the liberal tradition shows remarkable constancy about its core commitments: setting irreducible value to individual liberty, and fostering individuality and character, notably through education; trust in the possibility for self-improvement while acknowledging the human capacity for cruelty and depredation, and the need for strong institutions that enhance the former and minimize the latter; recognizing the diversity of interests and values both as an asset and as a challenge for good governance; insistence on consent, and rejection of revolutionary violence as a means of social progress. Moderation – a term we could have done more to highlight – seems central here: the simultaneous commitment to change yet also to a moderate pace of change so as to minimize violence and extremisms of all kinds.

DK: You have included many voices in the volume that are perhaps insufficiently known in the West. Are there one or two of those figures who you would particularly recommend as deserving of our attention and why?

EA: Though less well-known in the West, many if not all of the authors represented in the volume were prominent figures in their own time and place, with considerable intellectual and political clout. Hu Shih, Khyar al-Din Basha (a fascinating story of a born slave who rose to the highest ranks of Ottoman government), or Namik Kemal were political figures as much as thinkers whose influence often extended beyond their own countries. Argentine-born Domingo Faustino Sarmiento spent formative years of his political and intellectual life in Chile, and Poet and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz left an imprint in the West as much as in his native Lithuania or Poland.

One aspiration of the volume was to illustrate how arguments from one part of the world resonated in another, e.g., the chapter on Alexander Herzen (who, by the way, preferred to call himself socialist) reflects Mill’s reception in tsarist Russia; Sarmiento was deeply engaged with the works of Montesquieu and Tocqueville among others; and Hu Shih’s thinking about revolutionary China was shaped by Dewey at one point of his career, and Hayek’s thought at another. We were especially keen to include Islamic Liberals, of whom there were many in the 19th and 20th century.

Instead of singling out, let me reiterate that the stories we collected and the conversations we sought to canvass were meant to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. One thing both Alan and I found out is how much in the history of liberalism is forgotten or unknown – its global dimension for instance ­– and remains to be rethought and recovered. We hope this collection will serve as an inspiration to students of liberalism to continue and deepen this inquiry.

DK: You gather intellectuals, most of them political theorists, in a historical manner. What’s the value, today, of looking at the history of liberal theory, as opposed, say, to the history of liberal institutions and policies?

EA: Let me emphasize again that nearly all of the authors presented in the volume were not simply theorists but also political actors who developed their liberal ideas as interventions aimed at particular audiences and with particular, if also complex, rhetorical and political intentions. Sometimes what was said reflects the considered judgment of the author, sometimes it is a strategic utterance intended to gather support for a practical proposal, or, as Diana J. Schaub argues about Lincoln, meet the audience half way in order to lift it up. Often it is all of these things at once. This rhetorical complexity is one reason why one needs history or historical studies to illuminate what may, from a distance, appear to be an axiomatic proposition.

This said, the distinctive approach of the volume (and the “Textual Moments” series as a whole) is not its insisting on historical context. Rather its format combines a direct encounter with the thought of a particular author and a commentary that, by situating this thought in its own time and circumstances, reflects on its significance for ours. So each chapter opens with a resonant excerpt – a textual moment – from the work of a particular liberal thinker that occasions a direct experience against which readers can measure the interpretive effort that follows. It thus serves as introduction not only to diverse liberal thinkers and their main ideas, or to their contexts, but also to the challenges of interpreting political thought and speech, and to the skills of discernment and analysis that interpretation calls for.

DK: Socialism has seen a resurgence in American politics recently. Yet some think it is merely a label taken up by (left-)liberals who believe the Democratic establishment is too cozy with Wall Street. Others insist on theoretical differences with liberalism but admit that, in practice, left-liberalism and socialism will overlap. Even Corey Robin’s attempt at articulating the differences to me seems to leave a lot clear. Where, if anywhere, do you see differences?

EA: Steeped as I currently am in the German context, I don’t know enough about these movements to confidently judge them. On a more abstract level, I was just stressing how political thought is also action. Does political action always rest on programmatic thought? There are historical moments when political speech rises to philosophical heights; or philosophical reflection enters political contests (think of the Federalist papers, or of Max Weber’s lectures). These entanglements notwithstanding, it seems important to distinguish liberalism as a philosophical tradition from partisan appropriations or, conversely, from political disavowals.

Socialism, of course, is at least as diverse and populous a family as the liberal one, comprising a broad spectrum of doctrines and political positions. Historically the fault line between socialists and social democrats or left liberals has been about participation in political process versus the readiness to embrace enforced redistribution and revolutionary violence as a means of speeding up social development.

So long as today’s self-proclaimed socialists respect constitutional principles and liberal commitments to rights, consent, and rule of law–so long as they participate in a political process governed by these principles–they may be considered as legitimate members of the broad church of liberalism, or as liberal democratic parties, even if from the point of view of electoral politics such a label may not be particularly useful or distinctive.

On the other hand, I can also see why even in trying to shape its own distinctive profile a new movement may not want to be too sharp-edged about its political identity, which would risk alienating potential allies. So ambiguity seems to be the name of the game, and the identification of a program as socialist or not may well be a matter of political tactics rather than philosophical commitments.

DK: Do you think socialism will remain the dominant contrasting term with liberalism in the 21st century? Will assaults from the Right be the greater menace?

EA: If the future is any way like the past, liberalism will likely continue to be flanked on both sides: to the left by those who believe that peaceful development is too slow, or that the catalogue of rights too restrictive; and by those to the right who find this development too headlong and recklessly indiscriminate. In view of liberalism’s own insistence on the tendency of unconstrained power to become corrupt, hence on the importance of diversity and competition, the presence of alternatives seems like a good thing – as long as none of them proposes to become totalizing and reshape the world in its own image. Needless to add, liberalism ought not to do this either not despite but because it considers the value of liberty as universal and paramount.

DK: You have insisted in the past on the value of (the search for) truth as central to liberalism. Today many bemoan the rise of a “post-truth” world in the face of proliferating, unchecked, disinformation (“fake news”), particularly on social media. Do you see this as a problem with analogs in the past? Or would this challenge require a renewed dialogue with some of liberalism’s Others, e.g. the Ancients?

EA: That there is such a thing as science of government that stands to inform political practice is of course an ancient proposition. What modern political thought adds to it, among others, is the claim that the modern world is distinctive in various ways, and requires to be understood and addressed on its own terms. For the task of sorting out what is distinctively modern, an engagement with “the old” political science and with pre-modern societies–and also with alternative (non- or anti-liberal) definitions of the modern–strikes me as indispensable. Could such an engagement also help us get beyond the current post-truth moment?

Perhaps. For one, it may help to be reminded that, although unique in its technological make up, this moment is not unprecedented: from the sophistical movement in ancient Greece, and the rhetorical practices it championed, to the success of advertisement and propaganda techniques in the 20th century, the phenomenon of “fake news” has many antecedents. From Socrates to Walter Lippmann, it has prompted age-old skepticism about the capacity – and the desire – of democratic publics to accept facts or sift through complex evidence. It has also stimulated a deep reflection on the relationship between truth and politics (Hannah Arendt’s classic essay jumps to mind). Revisiting how past generations wrestled with this problem may illuminate and help orient our own efforts. It is also a useful reminder that democracies do not spontaneously cherish truth or resist manipulation; and that a commitment to standards of civility and reasoned discourse (as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have recently argued) needs to be cultivated and may require certain preconditions. Reflecting on what these are and how to sustain them in a technology-saturated and interrelated world strikes me as a new and urgent task for liberalism.

David Kretz is a PhD student in German Studies at the University of Chicago and has studied philosophy, literature, and intellectual history before that in Paris, Berlin, and Vienna. He mostly works on translation theory and political philosophy.