In This Review

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

In this fascinating book, Cherniss explores the ideas of liberal thinkers from the World War II and Cold War eras, who were searching for ways to respond to fascism and totalitarianism. The book builds on portraits of the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the French philosophers Albert Camus and Raymond Aron, and the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, mid-twentieth-century intellectuals who sought to defend liberalism by reimagining it. In each case, these thinkers were preoccupied by how liberalism could survive as a way of life in the face of extremist projects that had as their ultimate aim the root-and-branch elimination of liberalism and democracy. In each case, Cherniss identifies a similar move: the defense of liberalism less as a set of policies and institutions and more as an “ethic of politics”—a political temperament that acknowledged its own weaknesses and vulnerabilities but also its deep virtues as the great protector of human freedom. In each case, these thinkers struggled with the “liberal predicament,” which was to find a way to combat the ruthlessness of antiliberal movements without also becoming ruthless and illiberal.