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Faces of Moderation

Examining the writings of twentieth-century thinkers such as Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Norberto Bobbio, Michael Oakeshott, and Adam Michnik, Faces of Moderation argues that moderation remains crucial for today's encounters with new forms of extremism.

Faces of Moderation
The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes

Aurelian Craiutu

2017 | 304 pages | Cloth $65.00 | Paper $24.95
Political Science / Philosophy
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Table of Contents

Prologue. In Search of an Elusive Virtue
Chapter 1. The Ethos of Moderation
Chapter 2. The Lucidity of Moderation: Raymond Aron as a "Committed Observer"
Chapter 3. Moderation as an Antidote to Monism: Isaiah Berlin's Cold War Liberalism
Chapter 4. Meekness as a Face of Moderation: Norberto Bobbio's Politics of Dialogue
Chapter 5. Moderation and Trimming: Michael Oakeshott's Politics of Skepticism
Chapter 6. Radical Moderation and the Search for Moral Clarity: Adam Michnik's Lesson
Epilogue. Beyond the Golden Mean


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

In Search of an Elusive Virtue

People offer advice, but they do not give at the same time the wisdom to benefit from it.
—La Rochefoucauld
Many may still remember Barry Goldwater's famous words on the occasion of his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco in 1964: "I would remind you that extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." After pronouncing these memorable words, Goldwater gracefully accepted the nomination of his party and went on to score a massive defeat at the polls. His extreme defense of liberty was seen by many in tension with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and this contradiction (in addition to other things, of course) was enough to send Goldwater to the ranks of political losers.

Nonetheless, it would be difficult not to have some sympathy for his immoderate position in defense of liberty at a critical moment during the Cold War when the fate of freedom in the world was uncertain, to say the least. We would be mistaken to characterize it, to use Senator William Fulbright's own words, as "the closest thing in American politics to an equivalent of Russian Stalinism." Goldwater was none of that, to be sure; he was an American patriot who believed in his country's mission to spread liberty in an embattled world during the Cold War. I have no intention of reassessing Goldwater's legacy here. I begin with his critique of moderation because in my view, it misrepresented in an unforgettable way a cardinal virtue without which our political system would not be able to function properly. This understudied and underappreciated virtue deserves a closer look to reveal its nature, complexity, and potential benefits.

This is precisely what I hope to achieve in the present book, which is part of a larger multivolume research agenda whose main goal is to bring to light the richness of political moderation in the history of modern political thought. The concept of moderation was already present, as it were, between the lines in my first book, Liberalism Under Siege: The Political Thought of the French Doctrinaires (2003). It came to the fore in a subsequent volume, Elogiul moderatŘiei (In Praise of Moderation), written for a general public and published in Romanian in 2006. Six years later, in A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830, I began exploring in detail the tradition of political moderation in France (a second volume covering the period 1830-1900 in France will follow in due course). I argued that political moderation constitutes a coherent, complex, and diverse tradition of thought, an entire submerged archipelago that has yet to be (re)discovered and properly explored. This "archipelago" consists of various "islands" represented by a wide array of ideas and modes of argument and action; at the same time, it also includes elements and political strategies that were not shared by all moderates, or were shared only to varying degrees. The book ended (rhetorically) with a "Decalogue of Moderation" that emphasized the complexity, difficulty, and richness of this virtue. I argued that, far from being of mere historical interest, moderation may be particularly relevant in a post-Cold War age such as ours because it enables us to deal with the antinomies and tensions at the heart of our contemporary societies and allows us to defend the pluralism of ideas, principles, and interests against its enemies. I also insisted that moderation should be regarded as an eclectic virtue transcending the conventional categories of our political vocabulary. While moderation may sometimes imply a conservative stance embraced by those who seek to preserve the status quo, it would be inaccurate to claim that all calls for moderation are little else than conservative or "reactionary" attempts to maintain unjust social and political privileges or components of an ideological system by which modern elites seek to legitimize their power and domination.

The present volume has a different emphasis and examines select faces of political moderation in the twentieth century. It pays special attention to its shifting polemical and rhetorical uses in different political and national contexts and addresses the following questions: What did it mean to be a moderate voice in the political and public life of the past century? How did moderate minds operate compared to more radical spirits in the age of extremes? What were they seeking in politics, and how did they view political life? We will also take up a few more general questions: What are the characteristics of the "moderate mind" in action? To what extent is moderation contingent upon the existence and flourishing of various forms of political radicalism? What do moderates have that others lack? Is moderation primarily a style of argument that varies according to context, circumstances, and personal character? Or does it also have a strong ethical-normative core? And, finally, are there any common elements of what might be called the "moderate" style?

This volume does not aim to be—nor should be seen as—a work of political contestation; it is first and foremost a work in modern intellectual history, history of ideas, and political theory that contributes to contemporary debates on political virtues, radicalism, and extremism. Without treating moderation as a unitary block, I show its heterogeneity and diversity by focusing on the writings of representative authors (mostly European, with a few American exceptions) who defended their beliefs in liberty, civility, and moderation in an age when many intellectuals shunned moderation and embraced various forms of radicalism and extremism. Although their political and intellectual trajectories were significantly different, these thinkers may be seen as belonging to a loosely defined "school" of moderation that transcends strict geographical and temporal borders. I insist at the outset that there is no "ideology" (or party) of moderation in the proper sense of the word and that moderation cannot be studied in the abstract, but only as instantiated in specific historical and political contexts and discourses. What is moderate in one context and period may significantly differ from what is moderate at another point in time, which is another way of saying that moderation is not a virtue for all seasons and for everyone.

In treating such a complex subject as moderation, it is necessary to be as ecumenical as possible and examine a wide cast of characters including thinkers from all aisles of the political spectrum and from both sides of Europe (West and East). The last detail is particularly relevant today when the memory of the Cold War seems to be revived by recent political developments in Russia and the Middle East. Since the main focus of the book is on European political thought, the least represented here is the American political tradition. Nevertheless, the brief discussion of Judith Shklar's "liberalism of fear" and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s "vital center" and the occasional references to Edward Shils's writings on civility and Albert O. Hirschman's views on self-subversion should make it plain that American scholars, many of whom were of European extraction, brought important contributions to the debates on moderation and extremism in the twentieth century.

We will explore both well-known authors (such as Isaiah Berlin, Raymond Aron, and Michael Oakeshott) and lesser-known ones (such as Norberto Bobbio, Leszek Kolakowski, and Adam Michnik) whose selected writings had something important to say about political moderation in an age of extremes. Taken together, these thinkers do not offer a comprehensive account of this virtue, and the reader might wonder, for example, whether other major figures such as Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, or John Maynard Keynes should not have been examined as well. Needless to say, there is no shortage of worthy candidates. One thing is certain though: we need an open and ecumenical form of intellectual history, one that takes into account the creativity of both well-known and allegedly marginal authors whose works can illuminate the complexity and richness of the tradition of political moderation in the twentieth century.

The thinkers discussed or mentioned in these pages came from several national cultures (mainly France, Italy, England, Poland, and the United States) and belonged to different disciplines (political theory, philosophy, sociology, literature, and history of ideas). Not all of them identified themselves primarily as moderates; some preferred to be seen as liberals or conservatives, while others rejected all labels. What makes them fascinating and noteworthy is precisely their syncretism as illustrated by their different trajectories and ideas as well as by the fact that many of these thinkers, brave soldiers in the battle for freedom, refused narrow political affiliation and displayed political courage in tough times. Some of them started off their careers on the Left and then gradually embraced political moderation, moving toward the center or the center-right. A few of them exercised significant political influence as journalists—Aron, for example, wrote for Le Figaro and L'Express for over three decades, while Michnik has been the editor of the influential Gazeta Wiborcza for over two decades and a half now—or engaged intellectuals or politicians such as Bobbio who was a member of the Italian Senate. Still others such as Berlin and Shklar remained in the ivory tower of academia, even if they never lost interest in political issues.

Be that as it may, these thinkers paid a certain price for their political moderation because they refused to play the populist card or did not embrace trendy themes for short-term gains. As such, they lived at a slightly awkward tangent to their contemporaries with whom they had a complex relationship, punctuated by occasional crises and a few tense moments. Some of them were subjects of suspicion or even contempt, as demonstrated by the Parisian students in 1968 who thought it was "better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron." Finally, the thinkers studied here kept open the dialogue with their opponents even in the most difficult times. This was the case with Aron and Sartre, Bobbio and the Italian Communists, and Michnik and the former Polish Communist leaders.
Although the chapters of this book can be read individually as a series of intellectual vignettes, they are not intended as comprehensive studies of any of the aforementioned authors. Instead, the main focus is on the concept of political moderation, and each chapter illuminates a certain face of this elusive virtue as reflected in their writings. I examine how these thinkers conceived of moderation and, where applicable, how they practiced it. To this effect, I focus on their most relevant writings and comment on their intellectual and political trajectories only when they seem relevant to the larger topic of moderation. The mentality of our authors will remain obscure if we do not take into account how they related their ideas to the events that defined their lives, such as communism, fascism, the Soviet Union, the postwar European reconstruction, and the student revolts of 1968. The moderates discussed in these pages differed among themselves in several respects and belonged to different intellectual and spiritual constellations. Yet, at the same time, they also shared many important things in common such as their belief in dialogue, their rejection of Manichaeism and ideological thinking, their embrace of trimming and political eclecticism, and their opposition to extremism and fanaticism in all their forms.

The first chapter discusses the ethos of moderation broadly defined. I begin by examining a few misrepresentations of moderation and then comment on the challenges associated with studying and writing about this elusive and difficult concept. Next, I emphasize the potential radicalism of moderation as a fighting virtue before turning to trimming as a key face of moderation and exploring its role in combating ideological intransigence and dogmatism. I challenge the common view of moderation as a conservative defense of the status quo and claim that this virtue can also have its own radical side depending on circumstances. Finally, I focus on two essential aspects of moderation: as a synonym of civility and openness and as an antonym of fanaticism and dogmatism. As such, moderation appears as an essential ingredient in the functioning of all open societies because it acts as a buffer against extremism and promotes a civil form of politics indispensable to the smooth running of democratic institutions.

The second chapter examines the metaphor of the "committed observer"—le spectateur engagé—as a face of political moderation in the writings of Raymond Aron (1905-83). The choice of a French author for a book on moderation may seem surprising at first sight. Yet, a closer look at the French political tradition reveals that the latter has combined a well known tendency to radicalism with a lesser-known but surprisingly diverse tradition of political moderation. Aron's writings such as The Opium of the Intellectuals, An Essay on Freedom, Thinking Politically, and his Memoirs are discussed here as examples of lucid political judgment in an age of extremes when many intellectuals shunned moderation and embraced radical or even extremist positions. As an engaged spectator raised in the tradition of Cartesian rationalism, Aron reflected on a wide variety of topics such as the philosophy of history, war and peace, and the virtues and limitations of liberal democracy while commenting extensively on the major political events of his time. His works shed fresh light on the relationship between moderation, engagement, responsibility, and political judgment. Among other topics discussed in this chapter are the role of intellectuals in politics, Aron's reading of Marxism, his analysis of the revolution of 1968 in France, and his intellectual dialogue with Hayek. I also illustrate Aron's political moderation by analyzing his critical attitude toward General de Gaulle and his uncompromising attitude during the Algerian crisis when Aron defended the independence of the former colony.

Chapter 3 focuses on the relationship between political moderation, freedom, monism, and pluralism in the writings of Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) examined in the larger context of the Cold War liberalism. Berlin is an obvious choice for a book on moderation given his endorsement of pluralism and vigorous critique of political idealism, utopianism, and monism. I explore these topics along with Berlin's anticommunism and opposition to determinism by focusing on some of his best known essays (such as "Two Concepts of Liberty," "The Pursuit of the Ideal," and "The Originality of Machiavelli"), his interpretations of Russian thinkers, as well as his extensive correspondence. In this chapter, I also link Berlin's works to those of other Cold War liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1917-2007) and Judith Shklar (1928-92) whose respective theories of the "vital center" and "liberalism of fear" he partly shared. Another common trait linking these authors was their views on the role of passions, vices, and reason in politics. They dreaded the presence of irrationality, cruelty, wickedness, and evil in history and attempted to understand their roots and mitigate their influence in reality. Finally, I explore Berlin's moderate temperament by comparing it with that of two of his favorite authors, Alexander Herzen and Ivan Turgenev.

In Chapter 4, I turn to the writings of the Norberto Bobbio (1909-2004), the most prominent twentieth-century Italian political philosopher, in order to examine how constitutional liberalism and socialist democracy came to be reconciled in Italy and gave rise to an original yet still little-known form of "liberalsocialism," an important chapter in the history of political moderation in the twentieth century in which Bobbio and some of his friends (such as Guido Calogero) played an important role. The experience of fascism, the ideological divisions of the Cold War, and the slow and protracted democratization of Italian society during the 1960s and 1970s exercised decisive influence on Bobbio, who emerged as a strong advocate of constitutionalism, equality, and the rule of law. I examine his complex dialogue with the Italian communists and Marxists as well as the philosophy undergirding his politics of culture elaborated in Politica e cultura (1955) and other texts written during the Cold War; next, I consider Bobbio's views on political engagement and the role of intellectuals in society. Later in life, he argued that the most important virtue of intellectuals is mitezza (meekness), an important and intriguing face of political moderation. I argue that Bobbio's meekness derived from a particular forma mentis that could also be found at the heart of his philosophy of dialogue and politics of culture.

Chapter 5 focuses on the relationship between moderation, trimming, the politics of faith, and the politics of skepticism in the writings of the British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-90), best known for his critique of rationalism in politics and his theory of civil association sketched in On Human Conduct (1975). An attentive rereading of Oakeshott's writings shows that his target was not only rationalist socialism, but also those forms of conservatism that tend to evolve into rigid ideologies, thus losing sight of the complex nature of society and politics. After examining Oakeshott's distinction between "civil" and "enterprise" associations and his critique of political rationalism and ideological thinking, I focus on the affinities between moderation and conservatism in Rationalism in Politics (1961). Next, I turn to Oakeshott's posthumously published The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Skepticism (1996) in which he distinguished between two fundamental types of politics that, he argued, should be seen as the two poles between which modern politics have moved for the past few centuries. I draw on Oakeshott's reworking of the ideas of a classical seventeenth-century text, Halifax's "The Character of a Trimmer," and comment on his claim that we need a mixture between the politics of skepticism and of faith to navigate the troubled waters of modern politics.

The last (sixth) chapter turns to Eastern Europe and focuses on two concepts related to political moderation that were central to the anticommunist resistance in Poland: "new evolutionism" and "self-limiting revolution." The first became a key principle in the agenda of the Workers' Defense Committee (also known as KOR, founded in 1976), while the second defined the platform of the Solidarity movement beginning with the summer of 1980. The concept of "new evolutionism" was theorized by Adam Michnik, who developed it in the 1970s in a series of important essays collected later in his Letters from Prison (1987). In the footsteps of Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009), Michnik presented a persuasive case for a reformist agenda while supporting the general goal of a limited gradual revolution. In so doing, he also argued for a creative form of "radical moderation" at a key time when all of Europe was struggling to end the Cold War. I pay special attention to Michnik's ethics of dialogue and political trimming as illustrated, among others, by his position on the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Left in Poland as well as his conversations with Václav Havel and General Wojciech Jaruzelski collected in Letters from Freedom (1998). I also examine Michnik's controversial views on lustration and decommunization before concluding with a few reflections on the relationship between moderation and "inconsistency" in politics.

In the epilogue, I elaborate on the broad themes (metanarratives) of the book and highlight their contemporary implications for us today. I revisit the main arguments for moderation made in the previous chapters and reflect on how the hybridity of this virtue mirrors our world's ideological and institutional complexity. I argue that moderation should not be expected to always bring forth moral clarity and explain why there can be no ideology of moderation. As such, the latter must not be equated with tepidness or (always) seeking the midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting oneself there. In some cases, moderation is, in fact, the outcome of a long, arduous, and open-ended process of political learning, as the chapters of the present book demonstrate.
"A history book—assuming its facts are correct—stands or falls by the conviction with which it tells its story," Tony Judt once said (Judt and Snyder, 2012: 260). "If it rings true, to an intelligent, informed reader, then it is a good history book." I venture to say the same about a book in political theory or intellectual history, and especially about a volume on political moderation. The proper attitude for anyone writing on this difficult virtue is patience, and that is why I am inspired by the following words of Ortega y Gasset: "I am in no hurry to be proved right. The right is not a train that leaves at a certain hour. Only the sick man and the ambitious man are in a hurry." These days, it is quite common to be pessimistic or cynical about the chances of moderation in the short term. It is equally normal to lament its political powerlessness in a world dominated by ideological intransigence in which in order to be successful and make headlines, it seems that one must often espouse mostly extremist and immoderate positions. Anyone writing about moderation seems therefore to face daunting challenges.

To tell a convincing story about the types of moderation espoused by the authors studied in this book requires that we clearly highlight the common themes shared by their political and intellectual agendas as well as the differences among them. My ambition is to rethink an old concept and through it, to identify a certain school of thought where few had perceived its existence before. This raises a few significant methodological questions and challenges. First, there is the danger of converting some scattered or incidental remarks into a coherent doctrine of moderation which has never existed in reality. A related risk might be the tendency to underplay the differences between the ideas, agendas, and temperaments of the moderates studied here and overplay, in turn, the affinities or similarities among them. Yet another problem might arise from the attempt to offer a series of individual portraits and intellectual vignettes that might have only tenuous links among them.

My hope is that the approach used in this book successfully avoids all of these problems. I admit from the outset that moderation is a particularly difficult concept placed at the heart of a complex moral and political field. When reflecting upon the nature of this virtue, rather than relying upon the instruments of analytical philosophy, we need to adopt a concrete way of thinking about politics that takes into account the complex interaction among ideas, passions, institutions, and events. What makes moderation a notoriously difficult subject is not only the virtual impossibility of offering a coherent theory of this virtue, but also the fact that moderates have worn many "masks" over time that are different and may sometimes be difficult to relate to each other: prudence, trimming, skepticism, pluralism, eclecticism, antonym of zealotry, fanaticism, enthusiasm, and the "committed observer." Equally important is that claims for moderation have been part of historical controversies and debates and thus carry with them a certain rhetoric and a plethora of connotations, some more obvious than others. Among the concrete examples of agendas that claimed to be moderate one could mention the following: the juste milieu between revolution and reaction in postrevolutionary France, Ordoliberalism in postwar Germany, and social democracy in Sweden as a middle ground between pure free market capitalism and full state socialism. There were also several political movements that claimed to follow the principles of moderation: the Solidarity movement and the "self-limiting" revolution in Poland, Charter 77 in the former Czechoslovakia, and the doctrine of the "Third Way" in the United Kingdom in the 1990s.

Hence, the selection of the authors has been carefully thought out and the themes in each chapter have been chosen with the general goal of presenting a few faces of moderation that remain relevant to twenty-first-century readers. There are important differences among our authors that should not be glossed over. If they were all political moderates in one way or another, they had different temperaments and followed distinctive agendas dictated by the peculiar contexts in which they lived. While there may not be perfect ideological balance among them, I have included thinkers from different aisles of the political spectrum (Bobbio on the Left, Oakeshott on the Right, Berlin and Aron in the middle) as well as a few such as Adam Michnik or Leszek Kolakowski who are quite difficult to classify according to our conventional political categories.

Since projects similar to this one may appear to contain an air of intellectual superiority, chimerical fancy, and even conceit, I acknowledge from the outset with Shaftesbury that "the Temper of the Pedagogue suites not with the Age. And the World, however it may be taught, will not be tutor'd" (2001: 1:44). Hence, my main goal is to continue a conversation about an important but still surprisingly neglected virtue that is worth having today in our heated political environment. Overall, in the following pages I offer a spirited tour of perplexities, not a doctrinal book or a political agenda. I therefore play the role of a tour guide who introduces the topic and reflects on the virtues and limits of political moderation through the voices of a few thinkers who wrote about it or practiced it.

I do not hope to convince everyone about the benefits of moderation, nor do I want to give the impression that I might be an unconditional defender of this difficult virtue. It would be ironical (and absurd) to write a book about the latter that attempts to definitively settle the debate. One of the main ideas of this volume is that moderation has not one but many faces tied to various shifting contexts. It is important to remember that what was moderate in the 1920s or 1960s may no longer be so today, at least not in the same manner. This does not mean, however, that we should embrace nihilism or relativism for lack of a better solution. As the moderates discussed here show, some choices are (were) more reasonable than others and ought to be pursued (with the proper discernment) in spite of their imperfection.

One of the tasks of political philosophers is to challenge and help enlarge the sense and range of possibilities. I prefer to let those who open this book find and follow their own path, allowing them to see their own sights and draw their own conclusions as they think fit. If I have a sense of the final destination, I am much less certain about the best ways of finding the elusive archipelago of moderation. The readers are therefore invited—and encouraged—to be active participants on this journey, which might, after all, turn out to be much more important and fascinating than Ithaca itself—in this case, the concept of political moderation. Without the appeal of the latter, however, we might have never started the voyage and set sail for the unknown.

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