Making Liberalism New, or Neutering Liberalism?


Review of Making Liberalism New: American Intellectuals, Modern Literature, and the Rewriting of a Political Tradition, by Ian Afflerbach

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021



What does it mean to be a “liberal”? For Americans, the most common meaning of the term is, roughly, “someone who supports a larger economic safety net and social pluralism.” The next most common is slightly more specific: “classical liberal or libertarian, favouring a state that regulates the behavior of its citizens, economic, private or social, as little as possible.” The broad meaning present in “liberal democracy,” though not new, has been in the news often in recent years as Western intellectuals have warned of a tide of illiberalism sweeping across the globe; and over about the same period, another inflection of meaning, reminiscent of Cold War liberalism, has made a resurgence in America—to distinguish between groups within the left on various issues, most of all on freedom of speech. But in the academic left, as Ian Afflerbach says in his new book Making Liberalism New—or in the Humanities, at least—it is a term used for nothing so much as “the not-radical.”

It is against this last characterization that Afflerbach sets about revisiting the history of liberalism and of its oft-overlooked relationship to modernist literature. The story begins in the early decades of the twentieth century, with the split between these two first definitions, or really the emergence of the first from the second. In that period, a number of American intellectuals—foremost among them John Dewey—began to regard classical liberalism as the guiding ideology of American history and to question its fundamental claim that laissez-faire economics (or, the guarantee of maximal property rights) is uniquely suited to the promotion of personal liberty. These intellectuals believed that in the course of time laissez-faire economics had fostered an inequality of power in society so pronounced as to threaten or suppress the actual personal liberties of a large part of the population even as they retained formal legal equality with the rich and powerful few. Buoyed by the apparent success of state planning during the First World War, they built out of their critique of classical liberalism a new, “modern” liberalism, which would attempt to secure these personal liberties through a more muscular regulation of economic life and which cemented itself as a lasting political and institutional force in the New Deal. 

The story of this modern liberalism’s influence on the work of modernist American writers, and of literary modernism’s boomeranging influence on liberal thought into the 1960s, is the subject of Making Liberalism New. Contributing to a shift in modernism studies toward expanding the canon of modernist works and eschewing the traditional emphasis on modernism’s entanglement with illiberal politics, the first half argues that Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed and Richard Wright’s Native Son are in a certain sense modernist literary manifestations of the new liberal project laid out by Dewey. Toward this end, Afflerbach makes an interesting comparison between Dewey’s critique of classical liberalism and that of feminist thinker and political theorist Wendy Brown, who argues that classical liberalism systematically privileges one set of concepts (the individual, the public, autonomy, abstraction, equality, liberty, rights) by suppressing another (the social, the private, dependence, the embodied, difference, necessity, needs). In Afflerbach’s view, the primary intellectual problem that Dewey’s liberalism tried to solve was that of striking a new balance between these left- and right-hand values that prevented formal legal liberalism from producing (or reproducing) real illiberalism. 

Thus, his first chapter explores how the idea of “possession” is used throughout Slesinger’s novel to highlight the friction between classical liberalism’s “abstract notions of rights,” and “the embodied differences of gender” (49). In her representations of heterosexual male desire, of a couple’s fraught decision to have an abortion, and of the politics of American intellectuals more generally, Afflerbach argues that Slesinger identifies “aporias” in classical liberalism that later feminist scholars and critical theorists such as Wendy Brown and Carole Pateman would critique. 

His second chapter, on Wright’s novel, has for its central generative concept another aporia, one born of the new liberalism of the new deal era, but plagued by the same fundamental problems the early twentieth century’s “modern liberals” identified in classical liberal ideas. Here, he argues, Wright uses the trope of “blindness” to dramatize matters of collective difference and disparate impact neglected by the individual formal equality that “colorblind” jurisprudence and social norms seek to bring about. As in the previous chapter, Afflerbach is interested primarily in showing how the project of investigating the constitutive dualisms of liberal thought, so central to Dewey’s philosophy and to the spirit of the New Deal, gave shape and force to Wright’s ideas and allowed him to anticipate the critique of “colorblindness” later developed by critical race theory. 

In his third chapter, “The Inward Turn,” the direction of influence between politics and literature flips. If the self-scrutinizing project of liberalism inspired the modernist works of Slesinger and Wright in the New Deal era, then the modernist aesthetic values of irony, ambiguity, and unresolved contradiction exerted a growing influence over the liberal politics of intellectuals like Lionel Trilling and Reinhold Niebuhr in the aftermath of the Second World War. To these men, in this historical context, the constitutive dualisms of liberalism now seemed irreconcilable, and the optimism of Dewey’s generation dangerously naïve. Out of their reassessment of the first modern liberalism they made liberalism new once again, shifting the meaning of the term from its old emphasis on experimental public policy and onto the divided conscience of moral realism, the despairing, as Trilling put it, “that life could be ordered in such a way that its condition might be anything but tragic” (117). 

What book better reflects this sensibility than James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men? Agee’s book, first intended (and funded) as a New Deal documentary about several white sharecropper families in Alabama, was reconceived during reportage as a passionate examination of the morality of treating these individuals as a means to rouse support for New Deal policies that Agee had come to view as either useless or actively harmful. It is also, quite apart from its content, the kind of self-absorbed nonsense that the average teenage member of a high-school poetry club would consider “deep”; and that it should ever manage to rebuke the fundamentally selfish sentimentality he saw in the consumers of New Deal social documentaries was a hope Agee must have founded on their horror at seeing their own image in the glass. Juvenile and inelegant prose notwithstanding, however, the story of the book’s commercial fortunes—ignored or derided on publication in 1941 but much celebrated on republication in 1960—nicely captures the pivot inward and toward tragedy that characterized the liberalism of the early Cold War. 

On the heels of this pivot came a new liberal emphasis on another modernist preoccupation: “style.” During the Cold War, Afflerbach writes in the final chapter of the body of his book, American intellectuals and government agencies made modernist art and personal artistic style symbols of “the freedom and self-expression permitted to individuals by liberal democracy in the United States” and prohibited by Soviet totalitarianism (138). It is in this context that Nabokov, whose cousin was a career Cold War culture-warrior and who was himself doubly the refugee of totalitarian regimes, wrote the novels that would make him a famous stylist, and that Kennedy made culture and charisma the vital center of the presidency. 

Against the grain of both his contemporary reception and Rorty’s famous reading of Lolita’s style as a liberal pedagogical tool, Afflerbach contends that in each of Nabokov’s American books he dramatizes the fundamentally slippery and amoral nature of style—its equal capacity to resist, to disguise, and to invite tyranny. In this respect his work wrestles with a dual contradiction that would, in retrospect, taint Kennedy’s short tenure as head of state: the “style” that pretended to be a sign of independence and democracy became a screen behind which liberal intellectuals abandoned their critical suspicion of the state and Kennedy himself oversaw a dangerous augmentation of the powers of the presidency. 

This historical project is a welcome contribution to literary studies, both as a counterbalance to the reductive view of liberalism that predominates in contemporary scholarship and as a refreshing new look at the politics of modernist literature. It is also a political book in and of itself, and not only in the way that no book about political history can avoid being a political book. Afflerbach considers the left’s abandonment, since the 1960s, of the “rhetorical resource…[of] liberalism’s core categories,” a “major pragmatic failure” (183). Not only has this abdication allowed the right to appropriate liberalism’s glorious language of “liberty, equality, [and] rights,” for its own wicked purposes, but the left has not produced any alternative “political grammars” with a comparable popular appeal (182-183). Thus his book is a call to American intellectuals (who, it surprises me to report, Afflerbach assumes are overwhelmingly progressive) to take back the rhetoric of liberalism and to put it in the service of progressive political interests. 

Now, the first question that probably comes to your mind—the first question that came to my mind, at least—on reading these broad assertions is, what exactly does it mean to abandon the “rhetorical resources” of liberalism? This is a question that, unfortunately, Afflerbach does not confront head-on. Certainly he thinks that the left has abandoned the rhetoric of liberalism without abandoning its spirit, that critical theory and the politics it inspires (these being what Afflerbach means by the left) are liberal in fact if not in verbiage. His primary way of conveying this is to attempt to show that “much of what falls under the rubric of ‘critical theory’ has been rediscovering tensions in the liberal tradition that prior generations of liberal intellectuals recognized” (164).

It is not clear to me why a theory that talks about the same tensions in the liberal tradition that liberals talk about is a liberal theory. Would a theory that privileges needs and social interdependence over rights and autonomy to the same extent that classical liberalism does the reverse be a liberal theory? What makes a theory or ideology liberal or not may also depend not merely on the values or spirit of the ideology but on the relationship between these and the perception of reality that the theorists or ideologues hold. For instance, if two groups of people who share the liberal value of popular sovereignty disagree as to whether massive amounts of voter fraud corrupted the results of an election, then each group will regard the position of the other group (certify the election as is; certify only once fraud has been corrected) as illiberal, their values notwithstanding. Do critical theories not assume some (in some cases, many) descriptive claims—for instance, biological claims, or, a subject I will return to later, free speech—that are so different from those generally assumed by classical liberals (or indeed modern liberals) that neither group can view the political responses of the other as liberal, even if they judge using the same scale of values? These are just two questions that need to be mentioned for Afflerbach’s argument to be clear, and to be answered for it to be persuasive. 

Strangely enough, though this parallel between liberalism and critical theory is so central to the political argument of the book, Afflerbach only really “supports” it in the first half. The ideology or worldview of the Cold War liberals that occupy the second half of the book argues against this extension of the term “liberalism” to include critical theory, not for it. What made their liberalism “tragic” was precisely this, that they believed that what critical theory decried as terrible injustices were instead necessary evils, because only by fixing them very slowly or not at all could other, still worse evils (such as totalitarianism) be avoided. Thus it is only the fiction of Slesinger and Wright that provides evidence of proto-critical theory taking place within the liberal tradition. 

Afflerbach’s reading of The Unpossessed was to me his most persuasive in the book: there, as he shows, Slesinger excavates a male anxiety to regulate the private space of the womb, and a male elision of female reproductive labor, both of which inhere in the concept of “possession” at the book’s imaginary center in a manner remarkably prescient of feminist critiques of classical liberalism. But Afflerbach again founders when he tries to translate these observations into political advice, on the issue in this chapter most connected to contemporary politics: pro-choice advocates have failed to protect abortion rights, he writes, “because liberals remain unable to demarcate and defend rights within the pregnant female body without recourse to the same logic marshaled by their opponents” (51). Why should this same logic work better for pro-life advocates than for pro-choice ones? What exactly would a pro-choice argument that uses a logic that is not liberal but a rhetoric that is, look like? 

In the chapter on Wright, moreover, a dizzying contradiction emerges that makes Afflerbach seem not to know his own audience—or perhaps, to know it all too well. The crux of the political discussion of this chapter is that color blindness “does not simply represent a rhetorical weapon belonging to those protecting white supremacy in the United States but also an aporia in liberal thought, a metaphor whose antithetical uses over the last hundred years exemplify liberalism’s struggle to redress its constitutive dualisms…through the law” (95). The point, then, that Afflerbach wishes to make is that there are liberal arguments for and against color blindness, among which it is difficult to choose. 

But in an eight-page discussion, he spends all but three sentences arguing that color blindness is “a rhetorical weapon…protecting white supremacy.” Objections to affirmative action he represents as the objections of white conservatives only (excepting, with the usual progressive bewilderment, one brief reference to Clarence Thomas), conservatives who arrive on the scene with their reputations already tarnished. It could be that Afflerbach believes progressives to be adamantly for color blindness, on the very brink of throwing affirmative action out the window, and thus in need of a good dose of critical race theory to remind them that the issue is complicated. 

But somehow I find this improbable. The far more probable explanation is that Afflerbach refrained from providing the other half of his argument, because it is just not done, because it might offend a colleague or a student, because his audience might write him off, because it might give ammunition to reactionaries. This is ironic, considering that he intends his book in part as a criticism of progressive political tactics. For the progressive line on color blindness and affirmative action is bad political tactics. It is a serious contradiction to consider disparate impact sufficient evidence to deem a policy racist, on the one hand, and on the other hand to discourage any negative talk about policies designed to make it far more difficult for Asian-Americans, all other things equal, to gain access to a resource than any other racial group. It is a moral failure and a political blunder; and, as their share of the population grows and the competition for these artificially scarce resources becomes accordingly more intense, Asian-Americans will increasingly find the classical liberalism of the right more attractive, more honest, and of a sounder ethical basis, than the left.

This brings me to an important theme that, though latent in most chapters of the book, Afflerbach omits to connect to the present day. Moral uncertainty was central to Trilling's liberalism; he believed, as Afflerbach quotes, that “criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism…might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time" (116). Wright was driven out of the Communist Party for his writing, and in his lecture “How Bigger Was Born” describes three “mental censors”—the white racist, the communist comrade, and the black bourgeoisie—whom he had to overcome in order to write Native Son. Dewey, in his seminal essay Liberalism and Social Action, an important landmark in this book, names “freed intelligence” as one of three fundamental liberal values. And Nabokov was uncompromising in his commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of art. 

It is in his failure to connect these four dots that Afflerbach’s political analysis appears weakest. For freedom of speech is the most important site of conflict over the term “liberalism” today. Long before the pandemic, but even more intensely since it began, almost every other domestic issue in American politics has been refracted through the debate over free speech: vaccinations and masks, Sinophobia, election fraud, anti-black racism, transgender rights. The people on the left who place the greatest emphasis on their being liberals (rather than progressives, leftists, “lefties,” Marxists, and so on) are those who believe that there is an illiberal attitude toward free speech among their co-partisans, from which they would like to distinguish themselves. The first reason classical liberals, but also anyone else who describes the left as illiberal, will give for using that term is its hostility to free speech. And indeed, the fact that these two groups—the free speech liberals and the classical liberals—share this view, has gone some way toward driving the simplification and rejection of liberalism on the part of the progressives (academics included). None of this appears in Afflerbach’s book; but when his new (progressive) liberals make their entrance into the discourse, the first question that the American public will pose them is, “where do you stand on free speech?” And if their answer is, as currently, “Sure, I support it; but it is as safe as ever now,” then they will not be considered liberals. They will be considered fools. 

If Afflerbach had listened closer to the many liberal voices of his thoughtfully curated canon, his would have been a fresh and timely contribution to the political discourse of the day. What it is instead, is an unwitting warning about the dangers of intolerance and of intellectual rigidity. 



Posted on 10 March 2021

ALEX ZUTT is pursuing a Master's degree in English Literature at the University of Toronto.