Who’s Afraid of Judith Shklar?

Meet the American philosopher who showed that Western politics could only move forward by first taking a step backward.

Photograph of Judith Shklar, March 1972. UAV 605.295.11, Box 3.  Harvard University Archives.
Photograph of Judith Shklar, March 1972. UAV 605.295.11, Box 3. Harvard University Archives.

When the Harvard University political theorist Judith Shklar died in 1992 at age 63, she was better known than she had ever been but still did not occupy center stage of U.S. intellectual life. Unlike the more widely celebrated older generation of postwar political theorists — Isaiah Berlin, Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and F.A. Hayek — who were similarly shaped by exile from European totalitarianism, she neither inspired a large school of followers nor did she comment regularly on current events. Shklar’s thought was also out of step with the mood of the years that followed her death. Her intellectual style—a skepticism that occasionally bordered on pessimism — did not find much traction in the post-Cold War years of booming prosperity, deepening international trade, and a rising confidence that a liberal, humanitarian West would improve the world, by force if necessary.

Although Shklar has since earned a quiet renown as an influential teacher of teachers, a growing community is beginning to recognize that she is overdue for renewed consideration as a thinker. Giunia Gatta’s admirable new book, Rethinking Liberalism for the 21st Century: The Skeptical Radicalism of Judith Shklar (Routledge, 154 pp., $145), is a welcome introduction to Shklar for anyone not yet acquainted with her. The book confirms that Shklar never produced a systematic doctrine that successors could carry forward, as her friend and Harvard colleague John Rawls did. But it also shows that her work did cohere as an intellectual project — one that’s especially timely for the present moment.

Shklar’s writings on nationalism, migration, and refuge, informed by her own teenage experience as a Jewish refugee from wartime Europe, offer a clear indictment of the current politics of xenophobia. Her study of U.S. citizenship speaks directly to current debates about disenfranchisement and voter suppression. Her masterpiece, Ordinary Vices, has become essential reading amid rampant accusations of partisan hypocrisy and demands for political purity. And her most famous essay, “The Liberalism of Fear,” with its bracing vision of a political order that reconciles resignation with idealism, gives perhaps the clearest insight into her broader project — and, indirectly, the West’s present populist crisis. In that essay, published in 1989, Shklar suggests a unique way forward from liberalism’s current impasse — one that involves, in a sense, first stepping back.

“The Liberalism of Fear” is fundamentally an essay about the boundaries of liberalism. Over the course of the mid- to late 20th century, liberalism became encumbered by considerable cultural baggage in Western politics. It had come to be associated with the progressive technocracy of a self-appointed best and brightest and the judicial enforcement of substantive policy outcomes; it was a school of thought that both claimed to represent the people and seemed to avoid the messy practice of democratic politics. In part for that reason, some thinkers on both the right and the left came to use it as an epithet, shorthand for a halfhearted and weak-kneed lack of conviction. Think of Robert Frost’s joke that a liberal is someone who won’t take his or her own side in an argument or — in the immediate past as Shklar was writing her essay — George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign disdaining liberalism as culturally elitist and effete.

In her essay, Shklar tries to recenter liberalism by insisting it is essentially a political, not a philosophical or legal, doctrine. Liberalism is concerned with freedom, but the substance of freedom is to be determined by the individuals seeking it for themselves, not the philosopher divining its nature from her office. By placing limits on liberalism, Shklar also wanted to give it more force, in the service of protecting people from undue power — state power, above all. She thought the philosophical and juridical liberalism of rights and justice associated with Immanuel Kant and Rawls, as well as the aspirational liberalism of self-development found in John Stuart Mill’s work, ultimately went astray because it distracted from the most urgent political task associated with freedom: restraining state violence.

Shklar avoided that error by building on a different foundation than other liberal theorists. Whereas Rawls implied that liberalism earned its moral legitimacy by pursuing justice, Shklar treated people’s experience of injustice as worthy of moral consideration on its own. For Shklar, the capacity to sense injustice was independent of, and perhaps even more morally significant than, the sense of justice Rawls typically appealed to.

This insight informed Shklar’s vision of liberalism, and she explicitly distinguished it from Rawls’s liberalism of rights. Shklar’s was a liberalism motivated not by a summum bonum, an ultimate good, but by a summum malum, an ultimate evil, something to be avoided: namely, cruelty and the fear it inspires. Liberalism’s emphasis on restraint, she argued, should be motivated by the distinctive political evil of living in fear of state violence and cruelty. This was how liberalism could ensure it remained anti-statist in the right way: focused on the most dangerous branches and uses of state power, without giving up on state authority to restrain private cruelty as well.

As such, Shklar’s attention was focused on the political actors most capable of organizing violence — the state’s military, paramilitary, intelligence, and police and law enforcement agencies. Shklar’s discussion of the potential cruelty and lawlessness of armed agents of the state helps illuminate contemporary issues such as overincarceration, police violence, the legacy of the use of torture since 9/11, and, particularly timely, the sweeping powers of immigration enforcement agencies. In the 1990s, this struck many critics as an excessively modest vision, one that gave up on morally valuable aspirations and ambitions. But by 2018 it should be clear that liberalism as Shklar understood it cannot be taken for granted — and if liberalism hopes to win more widespread support among the people it is meant to serve, defending it on Shklar’s more modest and democratic terms may be the solution.

If Shklar’s vision of liberalism is distinguished by a kind of modesty, however, what should we make of the “radicalism” in Gatta’s subtitle? Gatta aims to dissolve the apparent contradiction — to show the radical potential of Shklar’s skepticism. Gatta wants to draw attention to the ways Shklar critiques traditional liberalism from the left and provides resources for a further push in that direction.

This is a complicated project, in some ways following the example Shklar herself set in interpreting the work of others. Shklar’s work was deeply rooted in the history of political thought, and she approached figures such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and, especially, Jean-Jacques Rousseau as thinkers from whose insights one should learn, not as raw materials to be reshaped as one likes. She tried to respect their strangeness and distance (she referred to Rousseau’s frame of mind as “totally alien”), the better to be able to be surprised by them. To her credit, Gatta does much the same with Shklar and mostly succeeds.

Gatta identifies themes that have been underappreciated in Shklar’s work: an orientation toward the well-being and the voices of the less powerful, a need for democratic participation and inclusion, a worry about economic power that is subordinate to the worry about state power but never absent. Gatta is right, for example, to highlight Shklar’s commitment to active, competitive politics and to note that her partial skepticism about democracy in “The Liberalism of Fear” is far from her only word on the matter: Liberalism, Shklar says, is “monogamously, faithfully, and permanently married to democracy — but it is a marriage of convenience.” Gatta shows that Shklar’s thought prescribes an open-ended democratic process to identify people who are subject to fear and cruelty, listen to their accounts of it, and think creatively about how to respond. In that way, Shklar’s failure to build a schematic political doctrine wasn’t an accident; in emphasizing fear and cruelty, she gave greater moral weight to interaction and communication than the stability offered by a political blueprint or a legal constitution.

It follows that Shklar’s key insights can inform more than one style of politics. And Gatta gamely shows that a socialist or social democratic leftist could be so influenced. But the author also acknowledges that, consistent with her own left-leaning politics, she emphasizes some themes more than Shklar herself did and develops some in directions Shklar might have rejected. As the book goes on, we encounter more of Gatta’s politics and less of Shklar’s.

Gatta, for instance, occasionally evokes the specter of “Cold War liberalism” as a calumny from which she seeks to rescue Shklar. But one might go through the whole book without knowing what Cold War liberalism, or the Cold War, was about. After the Soviet Union swallows up Shklar’s native Latvia, the former disappears from the book altogether. The casual reader might come away thinking that state violence and cruelty in the 20th century were the sole province of fascist and liberal regimes or that Shklar thought so. Neither is true. Gatta’s account would have benefited from treating liberalism and liberals (other than Shklar herself) in a less broad-brush way and from acknowledging ways that a Shklarian radicalism would require reform of leftist and radical thought.

Gatta’s concluding efforts to bend Shklar toward a contemporary socialist mood are surely not the only available interpretation. As Gatta notes, Shklar rarely engaged with economic questions at all. The only real exception, Shklar’s account of work in the context of U.S. history, isn’t an economic account of either labor or income. Rather, it’s an interpretation of how restricted access to the ability to earn a living has historically served as a marker of political exclusion. Shklar never pretended to offer a complete normative theory of political economy.

And so if Shklar’s intellectual resources can be developed toward a populist leftism that she would have distrusted, they can certainly also be developed toward the free market liberalism some readers mistakenly think she endorsed. Shklar’s liberalism of fear is a conceptual tool, not an instruction manual for using it; when it comes to the proper limits for using state power to constrain economic power, no single interpretation of Shklar’s theory can be considered definitive — neither Gatta’s nor even Shklar’s own.

Gatta makes much of Shklar’s plentiful critiques of free market liberals, F.A. Hayek in particular. But if Shklar often turned to Hayek as a foil, she also saw in him someone relevant to the questions she considered important. Like Shklar, Hayek was a liberal concerned with the rule of law, in the broad tradition of Montesquieu, drawing more on history than on philosophical abstraction. It’s no accident that there was no such ongoing attention to Hayek in the published works of Berlin, Strauss, Arendt, or Rawls, for example. The distance between Hayek and those thinkers was perhaps too great to allow for any productive tension. But Hayek was enough an intellectual neighbor to Shklar to provide an especially useful and important point of contrast for her own views.

Those of us concerned with shoring up liberal constitutionalism and free market liberalism in the face of current populist and authoritarian threats could stand to learn from them both. Many free market-oriented liberals who think of themselves as defenders of liberty against state power too often underemphasize the power of police and prisons, border guards and armies, intelligence and investigative agencies. Many prioritize the international free movement of goods and capital over that of vulnerable refugees and migrants. And many indulge a corrosive distrust of all political institutions rather than the politically engaged skepticism Gatta rightly sees at the heart of Shklar’s thought.

Shklar wasn’t a prophet; in fact, she distrusted anyone who assumed that role. But in the wake of the political catastrophes of the 20th century, she saw more clearly than most what was truly important to the liberal political project. Without building a system or offering a blueprint for utopia, but also without retreating into anti-political disdain for the fallen world, she offered a theory rich with real political wisdom. That kind of wisdom has been neglected, and is needed, in the defense of liberal governance against authoritarianism today.

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

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