Samuel Moyn, a distinguished intellectual historian who teaches law and history at Yale, characteristically stresses discontinuity in his work, and Liberalism Against Itself is no exception. After the defeat of the Axis Powers in World War II, the wartime alliance of the United States and Britain with Soviet Russia soon broke down, and the Cold War began. Moyn holds that the Cold War liberals who defended the West in this new confrontation broke radically with pre–World War II liberalism, and he does not like this change. Prewar liberalism affirmed human creativity and sought to achieve radical reforms of an economy dominated by wealthy corporate interests. It looked with favor on mass participation in politics, seeing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as an example of what could be achieved and seeking to extend it.

Cold War liberalism, by contrast, viewed the masses with fear, seeing both the Nazis and Communists as two branches of totalitarianism and treating with skepticism not only the Russian Revolution but often the French Revolution as well. Human limits rather than human powers were at the forefront, and original sin, or secular analogues of that Christian doctrine, became popular. Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx were expelled from the liberal canon but not forgotten; rather, they became part of the “anticanon”: “Anticanons—past books, figures, or movements that are anathematized in order to define and stabilize traditions—are of supreme relevance to canonical work. The elements of anticanons are preserved as counterexamples to avoid: ‘their errors’ are ones ‘we would not willingly let die,’” he writes.