It has become a truism to say that Samuel Moyn’s work landed like “a grenade” amid common understandings of postwar history. In numerous influential publications, he claims that the post-World War II popularity of “human rights” was not due to the advocacy of enlightened (Kantian) philosophers, liberal democrats, or progressive New Dealers, as many had long believed. Rather, it was reactionary European Catholics who elevated human rights as the buzzword of the era, part of their successful effort to build a conservative, anti-communist, and spiritually intolerant Western bloc. Moreover, Moyn provocatively maintains that Catholics, who spent the 1930s assiduously combating the notion of individual rights and assailing democratic regimes in Austria, Germany, France, and elsewhere, did not embrace human rights out of a heroic change of heart or a recognition of democracy’s intrinsic values. Their flimsy support of these principles stemmed from the conviction that human rights could be mobilized in their decades-long crusade against communism, individualism, and gender equality. Moyn therefore casts a harsh light on Europe’s postwar reconstruction and the era’s human rights renaissance as a whole. The architects of both, so it turns out, were actually the gravediggers of liberalism and equality.
But of greater consequence—and less recognized—is that Moyn’s historical narrative entails a blistering attack on current liberal politics and the conceptual agendas that animate them. His condemnation of other scholars, whom he accuses of constructing an overly sanguine human rights narrative that endows their present-day advocacy with prestige and historical precedent, is not merely an exercise in alternative conceptual genealogy. Instead, by highlighting human rights’ ugly past, he questions contemporary efforts to construct a rights-based political language and world order. Moyn suggests that the disheartening failure of human rights advocates to bring about global stability and justice stems, in part, from the historic and inherent limitations of the concept of human rights. This disappointment is therefore closely bound to the Christian roots and residue of these advocates’ ideas. The following comments therefore reflect on Moyn’s claims about the momentous years of post-World War II reconstruction and on his agenda for today’s world. For just like the historians he lambasts, Moyn finds the roots of current dilemmas in recent history. Yet in his telling, the past offers more alarming signs than rousing hopes.
The main provocation in Moyn’s insistence on the central role played by European Catholics in the renaissance of human rights in the 1940s is its fundamental challenge to common American narratives on the period. Since the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, an army of scholars—most famously Carol Anderson, Elizabeth Borgwardt, and Mark Bradley—has returned to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s invocation of universal human rights as an inspiration for an alternative, benevolent, and less aggressive American diplomacy (with varying degrees of conviction). FDR’s soaring promise in 1941 to work for “the supremacy of human rights everywhere,” while remaining intentionally vague about its practical implications, allegedly showed that the United States was once committed to spreading equality around the globe. Perhaps, many hoped, it could do so once again.
Yet according to Moyn’s contrarian story, once FDR died in 1945—leaving the deeper articulation and implementation of human rights to others—it was not progressive Americans but conservative European Catholics who perpetuated this concept. In a barrage of speeches and publications (most comprehensively in Jacques Maritain’s 1949 The Meaning of Human Rights), they appropriated FDR’s lofty language of human rights to claim that the only universal right that trumped state sovereignty was the right to be Christian. In making this claim, Catholic religious and political leaders sought to weaken state authority in order to impose Christian norms on public life. Working under the banner of “Christian Democracy,” these Catholics proceeded to insert Christian values (especially the sanctity of the family) into postwar constitutions, educational programs, and pan-European institutions across the continent. In many ways, these dynamics resembled the drama that had unfolded only two decades earlier, when Woodrow Wilson’s vague talk of “self-determination” was seized by anti-imperialist activists in Egypt, India, and China to claim a right to national independence, as well as by the Nazis to lay claim to Eastern Europe. If the end of World War I ushered in a brief global “Wilsonian Moment” (as Erez Manela called it), then Europe after World War II set the stage for a “Rooseveltian Moment,” as Europeans appropriated and transformed an American discourse for their own purposes.
Yet as the outpouring of human rights scholarship in recent years has shown, Catholics were far from alone in claiming universal rights for themselves. Imperialists and African and Asian anti-colonialists, anti-welfare conservatives and international labor activists, German nationalists and anti-nationalist Marxists all invoked the principle of human rights, injecting it with their own contradictory and incompatible agendas. Indeed, following FDR’s wartime proclamations, countless groups recognized human rights as the victor’s terminology, and thus articulated their visions in a similar and compatible language. They all sought to recast political agendas forged years earlier as part of a universal program, imbuing human rights with specific meanings that would further their particular goals.
Catholics, that is, did not control the meaning of human rights (though they certainly sought to do so). It is true that only in Western Europe did the language of human rights achieve institutional manifestation in supra-national organizations such as the European Common Market and the European Court of Human Rights that actually challenged national sovereignty. Yet even in Western Europe, such institutions remained relatively weak in the immediate postwar decades, and states continued to wield extreme power. Their revolutionary nature was recognized only in retrospect, when they provided the foundation for the radical expansion of pan-European institutions later in the twentieth century.
What is more, even the effort to appropriate human rights as a vehicle for conservative Christian rejuvenation in Europe was not solely a Catholic project. While Moyn refers to this briefly in “Personalism, Community, and the Origins of Human Rights,” (he and others have explored the issue in greater detail elsewhere), it was often Protestants who advocated for human rights and who injected the principle to countless charters, whether at the United Nations or in new European institutions. Like the Catholics, many Protestants unleashed a massive intellectual campaign against communism, liberalism, and fascism after World War I, which they deemed to be equally “secular” or “pagan” ideologies that sought to displace Christianity. The hugely influential German theologian Emil Brunner spoke for many when he wrote in 1929 that nationalism, capitalism, communism, and fascism were all “twin sisters,” which injected “their poison… into the organism of mankind.”1 All these modern ideologies, so the logic went, placed humans (instead of God) at the center of politics, and thus had to be destroyed by the imposition of Christian values. Like the Catholics, European Protestants joined their American counterparts in the 1940s to use human rights to advocate for Christian worship as a universal right, seeking to simultaneously undermine communist authority in the East and state sovereignty in the West. As Winston Churchill, one of the towering figures in Cold War mobilization and European integration (and a forgotten architect of the European Court of Human Rights), explained in 1948, the objective of committing Europe to human rights [was] “very simple… [it is] to restore the health and greatness of… Christendom.”2
All of this is to say that if Catholics succeeded in establishing their unforgiving and anti-communist vision of human rights in Europe, this was at least in part because their agendas overlapped with those of others. The enormous resonance of Jacques Maritain, who Moyn claims to be the most important thinker on human rights in postwar Europe, is in part attributable to the fact that he spoke for many liberals, Protestants, and even (albeit only rarely) socialists. After the war, as Jan-Werner Müller has shown, thinkers of many camps shared the hope that supra-national organizations were best equipped to bring about stability and repress communism. Catholics therefore showed a remarkable ability to fulfill not only their own visions but also those of other religious and political groups (for example, by creating welfare states on a scale that even the most optimistic socialist could not have envisioned).
Moyn, then, is right to offer a less dewy-eyed vision of postwar Europe, as a continent whose democratic rebuilding was marked by exclusion and reaction as much as pluralism and progressive ideals. He is also correct about human rights’ role in helping chart the severe limits of this project. But it is no less important to recognize that Europe’s reconstruction and stabilization drew from new coalitions—between Catholics and Protestants, socialists and liberals, Europeans and Americans—that would have been hard to imagine only a few decades earlier. And human rights provided a helpful intellectual framework for this cooperation, not only by marking a common communist enemy, but also by fostering a shared (even if weak and fragile) commitment to non-violent politics.
While Moyn’s work opens new vistas for understanding postwar thought, especially the central role of Christianity, the contemporary political implications render his story even more important. Yet his assertions about current politics somewhat contradict his historical method, which explains why some readers have overlooked them. In many of his writings, Moyn argues that terms and concepts acquire their significance not at their moment of birth, but as specific—and changing—political and cultural contexts infuse them with new meaning, making them appealing to new constituencies. His story therefore highlights intellectual ruptures and twists rather than the smooth transmission and inheritance of ideas. For example, while Christian conservatives in the 1940s and liberal (and largely secular) activists today have both hailed human rights, this does not mean they share any greater intellectual affinity. Rather, this common language reflects only superficial continuities; the persistent popularity of the term, in a different time and place, signifies that the meaning of human rights has been radically transformed. To be sure, there is some continuity between invocations of human rights in the 1940s and in later decades; the whole point of using familiar terms is that they are familiar. But in Moyn’s eyes, historians overlook drastic changes when they emphasize these longer continuities.
Yet in somewhat contradictory fashion, Moyn’s writing about Christianity (especially his recent essay on the concept of “dignity”) also condemns contemporary invocations of historical terms precisely because they can never fully escape their origins. If the liberal activists of Amnesty International rely on language articulated and refined by conservative Christians rather than forging a new one, are they helping their adversaries’ agenda? Do they not unintentionally perpetuate conservative ideas, instead of developing new terms that fit today’s challenges? If one of the goals of invoking human rights in the 1940s was to combat Marxism and its advocacy of the redistribution of wealth, does focusing on human rights today inherently preclude the adoption of measures needed to enhance global equality? From this perspective, the intense advocacy of human rights parallels the efforts of progressive thinkers and politicians to disseminate their values (whether supporting public education or welfare programs) in the neoliberal language of market efficiency and profit. This is a game in which they may win specific battles but have by definition already lost the war. Moyn is therefore asking how far one can really alter the meaning of a concept and whether it is possible for concepts like human rights to fully shake off their reactionary and potentially repressive historical residue.
These questions are far from abstract, since they seek to resolve burning political dilemmas. The so-called “human rights regime,” after all, with its plethora of institutions, courts, conferences, and publications, has abysmally failed to provide stability and justice or to curtail atrocities, repression, and brutal discrimination. Even those who passionately believe in the supremacy of moral norms over state sovereignty, and in the need to limit state power in the name of universal human values, would concede that international organization such as the UN (and its Commission on Human Rights) has not succeeded in decreasing global brutality. On the contrary, it seems that the growing prestige of human rights discourse in the jargon of global politics is diametrically opposed to its record in actually defending vulnerable humans from horrific abuse.
In Moyn’s logic, this depressing failure is not merely the product of inadequate implementation—for example, the International Criminal Court’s habit of enforcing its justice only on weak and poor countries in Africa. Rather, it is inherent to the limits that the concept of human rights itself imposes on the political imagination. A Christian concept designed to serve Christian principles in the postwar moment, it could never become truly universal. Stemming from European (or Euro-American) interests, it could not successfully alter the structural conditions that facilitate current-day atrocities. Until a new ideological framework for global reform emerges, the world will remain stuck in a cycle of atrocities followed by toothless moral condemnations. This is a tragedy that no human rights activists or jurists, no matter how enthusiastic, can evade. This line of thinking requires some methodological gymnastics: Moyn criticizes liberals for seeking to highlight human rights’ progressive origins in light of dramatic differences between past and present. Yet he also argues that contemporary usage of human rights is fundamentally limited because it cannot fully shed its conservative and reactionary origins, despite the passage of time.
But despite the tension between these two claims, Moyn presents a powerful and radical political critique, which goes beyond the more common objections to human rights as the motor for Western (or American) self-glorification and imperialism. What is at stake here is the value and desirability of seeking a common language between different political visions; in this case, between Christian and secular humanism. Can Christians and seculars, as Jürgen Habermas has been pleading for over a decade, find common ground in shaping public life? Or is their perpetual failure to do so reflective of an unbridgeable gap between what they consider legitimate? To Moyn, reactionary Christian origins are likely to preclude a progressive future. The story of human rights—their origins and failure—is a chilling statement about progressives’ need to get over their self-defeating accommodation and the duplication of Christian terminology. This is a tremendous challenge, especially since Moyn does not point to an alternative concept that could replace human rights. But if he is correct, then the failure to produce new alternatives condemns the world to a dishearteningly depressing future.