Can an Adjective Transform Our Politics?

16 July 2023

Review: Michael Walzer, The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective (Yale University Press)


Michael Walzer is among America’s most distinguished political philosophers.  Throughout his long career, Walzer has pondered and written about American liberalism from a perspective well to the left of the political center. Now in his late 80s, Walzer’s most recent work, The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” As an Adjective, seeks to provide what he terms a “newly imagined” perspective on the slippery word “liberal” by focusing upon its role as an adjective rather than a noun, thereby side-stepping the need to define “liberalism” comprehensively.  In seven chapters, Walzer examines the implications of the adjective “liberal” as applied to seven distinct “commitments”, held by democrats, socialists, nationalists and internationalists, communitarians, feminists, academics and intellectuals, and Jews – the commitments which have defined Walzer’s personal and professional life.


The book’s main argument, stated simply, is that the adjective “liberal” cannot “stand by itself as it is commonly made to do (by adding the ‘ism’); it needs its nouns.” If nouns like socialist, nationalist, and so forth are political “commitments” the adjective “liberal” denotes one of the means to meet that commitment – and in Walzer’s view by far the best means. A substantial portion of each chapter addresses the illiberal versions, from both left and right, of each of Walzer’s seven commitments.


The Struggle for a Decent Politics thus constitutes an argument for a centrist liberal perspective on the major issues of our time, leaning left but avoiding radicalism. Its perspective echoes that which 20thcentury arch-liberal Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., staked out in 1949 in The Vital Center, where he outlined the case for liberal democracy and robust but regulated capitalism as the best if not only workable alternative to the political extremes. Like Schlesinger in the late 1940s, nearly 75 years later, Walzer stakes out a position firmly rooted in the American political center, looking left.


Walzer crafts exceptionally tempered arguments as he discusses some of the most polarizing issues in the United States and beyond today, including populism and the current Republican party, the #MeToo movement, free speech on campus and contemporary Israel. He rarely names names when he addresses the illiberal tendencies he strongly opposes. This measured tone, never shrill or polemical, appears designed to win over those not usually inclined to look favorably on anything labeled “liberal”, and thereby help to make our politics more “decent,” as his title suggests. Sounding much like the former civil rights and anti-war activist he once was, Walzer describes the battles for decency and truth for his commitments as “among the most important of our time,” with the adjective “liberal” being “our most important weapon.”


The Struggle for a Decent Politics has the flavor of a memoir, and it is “in part a personal testament”. Indeed, Walzer acknowledges at the outset that he may not have much time left for additional work, and this book may be about as close as he comes to defining who he is and what he stands for in the 21st century’s tumultuous third decade. While his stratagem of considering “liberality” as a means toward various ends may avoid defining “liberalism” comprehensively, a picture of the liberal temperament nonetheless emerges across the book’s seven substantive chapters.


Walzer liberals are committed to restrained political power, individual rights and pluralism. Open-minded and tolerant, they are willing to accept change, including changing their own views, and are guided in shaping those views by scientific and other empirical evidence. Whatever their religion, liberals are not dogmatic. But neither are liberals relativists: “We recognize moral limits; above all, we oppose every kind of bigotry and cruelty,” Walzer writes. Unlike many radicals on both the left and right, Walzer liberals recognize the crucial role of the modern nation-state in forging a type of civil religion with the potential to bind together a diverse polity.


If The Struggle for a Decent Politics is something less than a comprehensive analysis of liberalism, it is nonetheless an extended argument for liberal democracy, the subject of the book’s first substantive chapter and the centerpiece of Walzer’s political credo. It is difficult to imagine any of the subsequent commitments that follow functioning effectively outside a liberal democratic framework.


Modern democracy is an “extraordinary project,” Walzer writes, based on majority rule, a “political order where the greater number of the people, when everyone is counted, actually govern the country.” But majority rule in a liberal democracy needs to be constrained, in part by such institutional checks as a constitution that guarantees individual rights, an independent judiciary and a free press.   Competition for political power in a liberal democracy is wide-open, with much – but, crucially, not everything – at stake. Built on the expectation of a peaceful transfer of power, “without death or prison for the losers,” liberal democracy is “transformative but not revolutionary.” Right-wing populists consider themselves democrats, representing “the people,” but theirs is an illiberal form of democracy, a triumph of majoritarianism over liberal constraints. “Populist demagogues”, Walzer argues, “are wrong to claim that once they have won an election, they embody the ‘will of the People’ and can do anything they want.”


Sounding much like a 21st century Tocqueville, Walzer argues that liberal democracy thrives when it encourages a vibrant civil society which includes “religious, ethnic, economic, philanthropic, and cultural organizations” of all stripes. Institutions like churches, synagogues, mosques, unions, professional groupings, political clubs and extended families allow for “close intense, personal relationships,” where we “talk, argue, negotiate, come together.” A pluralist and inclusive civil society constitutes an additional restraint on majority rule in a liberal democracy, where every individual is a political agent, “able to join any all meetings and movement and free to stay home – the equal of all the others”.


This is Walzer’s argument for liberal communitarianism. Communitarians emphasize the value of membership in private and voluntary groups, focusing on the “close connection of a group of people who share a strong commitment to a religion, a culture, or a politics.” Walzer, considered a leading communitarian in the 1980s and 1990s, insists that to be liberal, communitarians must be pluralist: the distinct and separate activities that form the backbone of civil society should not separate us from each other. Liberal communitarians oppose the “exclusivist passions and fierce partisanship” of some identity groups, which Walzer traces to the illiberal communitarianism of Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose communitarianism was anything but pluralistic. Participation in the civic republic was for Rosseau a “commitment that excludes all others.” For Rousseau, “Secondary associations, church and political parties above all, are a threat to the integrity of the republic,” Walzer writes, although he notes that, if there are to be any such associations, Rousseau considered it “better if there are a lot of them so that no single one competes with the republic for the loyalty of its citizens.”


Walzer sees citizenship as the pluralist glue holding together a liberal democracy’s wide range of independent and voluntary associations. Citizenship constitutes a formal recognition that all are “equal members of a political community” – that we are “all in the same boat.” Through common citizenship, we share what might be termed a civic religion, without theology but with its own rituals, holidays and authoritative texts. A recognition that we are all in the same boat also captures the spirit of democratic socialism, a crucial branch within the liberal democratic tradition.


The adjective “liberal” in front of “socialism,” Walzer writes, means that a socialist society can be achieved “only with the consent of the people as they are here and now with all their differences of character, belief, and ability, and it must be fought for democratically.” Liberal socialism is pluralist, with ample room for disagreement – disagreement over the “strategy and tactics of the struggle, and about which compromises are necessary, and which are ‘rotten’.” We should expect to find many versions of liberal socialism, Walzer writes, with “parties, unions, and magazines of different sorts competing for members (subscribers, too) and influence within a liberal democratic framework.”


Walzer’s liberal socialism seems indistinguishable from what we today term “social democracy,” reformist rather than revolutionary, like liberal democracy itself.  Unlike many of its predecessors, liberal socialism accepts regulated market capitalism, with Walzer offering a relatively benign view of capitalism in this volume.  Liberal socialism should leave room for entrepreneurs. We need to “make sure there is space for them to do what they do, space for individual innovation and risk-taking,” he writes. The breathing room provided for pluralism and market capitalism constitutes a rupture from socialism’s conspicuously illiberal predecessors, particularly Bolshevism and its fanatical progenies.


Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong considered themselves socialists but there was nothing remotely liberal about either. Today’s liberal socialists must acknowledge the murderous socialist past, “memorialize the victims, and set themselves against any return of authoritarian or totalitarian politics.” Two steps forward, one step back is always better than “three steps forward over the bodies of our opponents,” as Walzer wisely observes.


Liberal socialists’ “central creedal commitment” should be to combat unjust economic inequalities. They need to do so within the modern nation-state, Walzer counsels, because socialists have not been successful anywhere except within a nation-state in which they recognize the “national loyalties of their people and build strong national parties,” he writes. Liberal socialists thus need to be liberal nationalists.


Nationalists are simply people who put the interests of their own nation first. History is of course punctuated by illiberal nationalists who expound and act upon xenophobic, aggressive forms of nationalism, but liberal nationalism is no oxymoron. As Walzer reminds us, at the time the term came into popular use in the 19th century, nationalism was among the preeminent manifestations of liberalism advocated for by the likes of Garibaldi and Mazzini. While putting the interests of their own nation first, liberal nationalists also recognize the right of other people to “do the same and seek accommodation, cooperation and solidarity with nationalists across borders.”


Liberal nationalism thus requires a “political struggle against illiberal nationalists at home and complicated diplomatic dealings with self-regarding nation-states abroad . . . The goal is peaceful coexistence”.  Although they do not support entirely open borders, liberal nationalists take a benign view of immigration, unlike most of their illiberal counterparts, making room wherever possible for asylum seekers and refugees. They “resist contemporary xenophobic nationalisms, including those that are anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic.” They further recognize the rights of minorities within the states that nations create. Being a liberal nationalist thus necessitates a commitment to pluralism.


Being a liberal Jew also necessitates a commitment to pluralism. Liberal Judaism evolved from Jewish emancipation in Western Europe and North America in the mid-19th century, Walzer explains, making it “possible for many Jews to abandon all the denominations and become unaffiliated and nonobservant Jews, identified simply as members of the Jewish people.” Liberal Jews like himself are easy to caricature, he writes. They are “very moderately committed to one way of being Jewish; look benignly, or maybe indifferently, on all the other ways; congratulate themselves on their broad-mindedness; and avoid as much as they can Jews who are more strongly committed.”


Walzer sees overly committed, illiberal Jews, in control in today’s Israel and visible elsewhere, rejecting Jewish pluralism in favor of allocating power only to those who live as they do. But he also sees liberal Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who “stand against the unexpected return of religious zealotry.” For Walzer, a commitment to liberal Judaism entails a commitment not only to pluralism but also to secularism, as manifested in the United States through the famous “wall of separation” between church and state. But he also recognizes that there are illiberal forms of secularism – there have “certainly been secular zealots.”


In his chapters on Liberal Feminists and Liberal Intellectuals and Professors, Walzer sees illiberal versions at work to his left. Men can of course be feminists. But if you really want to be a feminist, Walzer notes, you “have to join the arguments about what feminism means, and if you are a male outsider, you need help from the inside”.


On the other hand, Walzer is no outsider when he addresses liberal professors and intellectuals, having been both for many decades. His major concerns in this chapter are free speech and its limits on university campuses, focusing upon the tendency of some professors to avoid offending students. This tendency arose out of legitimate anger of early Black students in predominantly white universities, Walzer explains, an anger which somehow transformed into a “plea for comfort,” with sensitivities encouraged to become “ever more sensitive.” Decidedly illiberal academic practices have resulted: lectures cancelled, speakers shouted down, professors reprimanded and disciplined, and students harassed by fellow students, “all because of ‘offensive’ opinions.” Too many professors hide in such instances, “self-censoring, reluctant to say anything that might make them a target.” There is a crying need now for liberal professors who defend free speech on campuses, especially speech which might offend some students.


Where Walzer would close the liberal circle is the subject of his intriguing final chapter, entitled “Who Is and Who Isn’t?.”  Here, he identifies nouns for which the adjective “liberal” does constitute an oxymoron: liberal racists or liberal Nazis are two obvious examples.  “Bigotry and hate don’t have liberal versions,” he writes.


Even today, we can imagine liberal Republicans, although there are not many left. There can also be liberal conservatives, “most obviously those who try to conserve or rescue liberal democracy when it comes under attack,” with former Representative Liz Cheney being an obvious example, although Walzer does not mention her by name. But in deciding which conservatives deserve to be inside the liberal circle, we “always have to ask what is being conserved. The effort to defend or revive hierarchical regimes can be a romantic project but not a liberal one.”


But what about historical figures whose reputations are currently under attack, such as Voltaire, who had anti-Semitic tendencies, or slaveholder Thomas Jefferson? We are “endlessly reminded of the sins of our forefathers and of our own failure to acknowledge the sins and to repair the damage they caused.” The failures of such figures may be obvious, but Walzer urges a more generous, less iconoclastic view for such historical figures: Voltaire in his time was indeed a liberal philosophe and Jefferson a liberal republican, he insists.


Walzer finishes with a cheeky question: can there be illiberal liberals? Of course, he says, there will always be “absolutists of different sorts who believe that their own version of liberalism is the last word.” Walzer certainly does not intend  the capacious versions of his commitments to “decent politics” to be the last word on these subjects. And let us hope, fervently, that this timely, deftly argued work is not the last word from Walzer.

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