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Review: “The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On ‘Liberal’ as an Adjective” by Michael Walzer

(Jon R. Friedman)

Reading between the lines, we learn in fact that [Michael] Walzer believes that the Right, wrong in its continuing adherence to capitalism, but correct in its eschewal of intellectual fashion, currently has a monopoly on political wisdom.”

In an article published in 1941, the political philosopher Leo Strauss invited his audience to imagine a historian living in a totalitarian country. A “generally respected and unsuspected member of the only party in existence,” he is led “by his investigations to doubt the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion.” Naturally, to dissent from the party line would draw the wrath of the authorities. Demurral would eventuate in loss of livelihood, or even loss of life. If one is a diligent researcher committed to expounding the truth, how, then, should he proceed? According to Strauss, the historian would proceed as follows.

Firstly, nobody would prevent our historian from publishing “a passionate attack on what he would call the liberal view.” Of course, before attacking it he would have to state it first. Making that statement, he would write in the “quiet, unspectacular and somewhat boring manner which would seem to be but natural.” However, having reached the core of the argument, he would write three or four sentences in a “terse and lively style.” Our historian would exposit, in one passage alone, “the case of the adversaries, more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the very heyday of liberalism.” The reasonable young reader would, thus, for the first time, “catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit.” Newly aware of the historian’s esoteric strategy, our intelligent young reader would now sense the author’s veiled irony when he discusses the books of the ruling party, and, reading the book again, he would detect “in the very arrangement of the quotations from the authoritative books significant additions to those few terse statements.” The reader, in other words, would, with difficulty, gain access to the historian’s actual views, as opposed to the state-sanctioned orthodoxy.

Strauss argued that persecution “gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing, and therewith to a peculiar type of literature, in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines.” Esoteric writing, Strauss claimed, “has all the advantages of private communication without having its greatest disadvantage—that it reaches only personal acquaintances.” Meanwhile, it “has all the advantages of public communication without having its greatest disadvantage—capital punishment for the author.” 

Now, persecution comes in a variety of forms, “ranging from the most cruel type, as exemplified by the Spanish Inquisition, to the mildest, which is social ostracism.” Certainly, we, in the West, do not have our own contemporary Torquemada. What we do have, however, is wokeism, the aggressive zealotry of the modern Left, which, when it comes to a variety of issues chiefly concerning race, sex, and gender, brooks no dissent. Entrenched in academia, publishing, and the middle-class professions more generally, wokeism is producing a revival of esotericism, absent for centuries, in the West. 

One such example of writing between the lines is the American political theorist Michael Walzer’s new book, and perhaps his last, The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective, which was published in January. Neither an academic tome nor a work of political theory, it is an esoteric attack on wokeism, the ideology of ostensibly liberal young people. Concealing his objective from his readership—his “first concern is with those on the left”—Walzer shows us how liberality is properly performed. 

Once one gets over the strategic concessions Walzer makes to his adversaries, the scare quotes he places around the word woke, for instance, or the claim that critical race theory “makes a good subject for a college course,” one quickly discovers that The Struggle for a Decent Politics is a brilliant book, which ought to be read by Left and Right alike. Reading between the lines, we learn, in fact, that Walzer believes that the Right, wrong in its continuing adherence to capitalism, but correct in its eschewal of intellectual fashion, currently has a monopoly on political wisdom. Like the theorists of British Blue Labour, whom he in some respects echoes, Walzer embraces a politics of paradox, from his perspective, a truly liberal approach. 

The Struggle for a Decent Politics, Walzer writes, is inspired by two books: Carlo Rosseli’s Liberal Socialism and Yael Tamir’s Liberal Nationalism. Atypically, both books use the word liberal as an adjective rather than as a noun. Acknowledging his antecedents, Walzer follows suit. Arguing that liberalism as an ideology—broadly, a belief in free markets, free trade, open borders, a minimal state, radical individualism, civil liberty, religious toleration, and minority rights—is dead, having morphed into libertarianism, liberals, he claims, “are still an identifiable group.” They are best described, not in political or cultural terms, but in moral ones: They are, or aspire to be, open-minded, generous, and tolerant. Able to live with ambiguity, liberals are ready for arguments that they do not feel they have to win. They are neither dogmatic, nor fanatical. But liberals are not relativists, either. Opposed to every kind of bigotry and cruelty, liberals have moral limits. 

In the book, Walzer delimits a liberal democracy, a liberal socialism, a liberal nationalism, a liberal communitarianism, a liberal feminism, a liberal intellectualism, and a liberal Judaism. His argument, simply stated, is that “the adjective can’t stand by itself as it is commonly made to do (by adding the “ism”); it needs its nouns. But the nouns, the substantive commitments, will never be what they should be without the adjective “liberal”.”

A former editor of the left-wing American journal Dissent, Walzer is still very much a radical. Liberal, he is keen to stress, does not mean complacency and compromise. Instrumentally advertising his anti-capitalist credentials, his opening gambit is on populist demagogues, or “Maximal Leaders,” above all, former President Donald Trump (though there are jibes at Latin American populists, often Leftists, and Soviet repression too). Needless to say, Walzer censures the illiberal democracy practiced by President Trump and championed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, defending, instead, a “wide-open competition for power, with much at stake but not everything” and the freedom of civil society. This is both correct and predictable. But what is chiefly of interest here is Walzer’s tacit critique of Antifa and his first subtle reproval of wokeism—in this instance, extreme versions of decolonize the curriculum.

Using Occupy Wall Street as a decoy, the remedy for Maximal Leaders, Walzer argues, is not leaderlessness. On the contrary, radical democracy is typically illiberal too, permitting the loudest, the most manipulative, and the most threatening to dominate. There is nothing remotely illiberal about a disciplined movement so long as that discipline is self-imposed. Now Occupy Wall Street was benign. Antifa is not. Liberal democratic movements, Walzer claims, are nonviolent. They “prevent militants from violating the rights of their fellow citizens: harassing bystanders, breaking windows, burning cars, looting stores, in the name of revolution.” Walzer writes without a referent. However, in a primarily present-oriented treatise, it is not difficult to work out whom he has in mind. The kids, it turns out, are not alright. 

Unremittingly reasonable himself, Walzer understands that many of the Americans who supported President Trump were not “deplorables” but had simply been left behind. They harbored legitimate, if misdirected, grievances against an unfair system. Concerned, though, that millions of citizens are ready to believe in “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories, Walzer argues that what we need most right now is an enhanced education in “critical empiricism.” A little patronizing to say the least (those who believe in conspiracies etc., are not always credulous), crucially, this, he goes on, is “probably more urgent than teaching about diversity, identity, or even critical race theory.” First the sugar: It goes without saying that American schools ought to be provided with textbooks which tell the truth about slavery, Reconstruction, and racist and xenophobic discrimination. Then the pill: Nevertheless, they must also tell the truth “about the remarkable persistence of democratic institutions in the United States for two and a half centuries.” Let us be generous to our forefathers, Walzer softly urges. Later, emboldened, he states his case explicitly.

Undoubtedly, figures such as Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill are not beyond reproach. Voltaire was racist and anti-Semitic. Jefferson owned slaves. And Mill supported colonialism. However, Voltaire also defended religious liberty for protestants. Jefferson fought for a constitutional republic and a Bill of Rights. And Mill “argued beautifully for freedom of speech.” By the standards of their own time, these men were incredibly progressive; it is an uncharitable philosophy which judges them by the standards of ours. We ought, in other words, to keep on reading them. 

Bravely, in the chapter on feminism, Walzer expresses support for the British ban on the suttee in India—the self-immolation of Hindu widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres—implemented in 1829. The British Empire, one infers, was a mixture of good and bad. Braver still, Walzer rejects a “hard multiculturalism,” which tolerates, accommodates, or defends misogynistic practices of religious and ethnic groups. On a domestic level, the Enlightenment project, with its liberal universalism, is a good one. Indeed it is. The postcolonialists, though—the secret malefactors in Walzer’s analysis—are determined to suggest it is not.

In his conclusion, Walzer, finally, breaks cover. Liberals cannot be racists, he tells us. He does not argue the case, but he does not accept that the liberal democrats and socialists “who defend equality, civil liberties, and affirmative action” also harbor the “racist impulses, emotions, and attitudes deep within” that “root-and-branch anti-racists” attribute to them. 

Clearly very worried about the soft totalitarianism that infects the professional middle classes and their political organizations, Walzer describes contemporary police abolitionists as the “spiritual descendants” of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A communitarian himself, Walzer insists that a community must not be watched and admonished by its own ordinary members but by professionals in uniform. That way, the watchers are watched and an unofficial Stasi, comprised of the fearful and vindictive or just plain malicious, does not emerge. Deadly serious, elsewhere, he proceeds more tongue-in-cheek. 

Walzer’s chapter on feminism, for example, is replete with gentle irony. “Of course men can be feminists,” it begins, “and these days many are and are eager to tell us so.” Amused for the most part by this kind of youthful virtue-signaling, even Walzer, however, has his limits. Reflecting on the first feminist denunciations of gender essentialism, “[s]ome of the denunciations of heteronormativity did not feel liberating to those of us self-identified as male or female,” he laments. “We may have been enacting binarism, but that didn’t mean we were intolerantly insisting on it. Liberal feminists won’t insist, nor will they assume, that all ‘normal’ people are by definition intolerant.” As the #MeToo movement demonstrated, by no means are all feminists liberal. Like race, the topics of sex and gender are chock-full of fallacious ideas.   

Increasingly exercised by the narrow-mindedness of his unmentioned opponent, Walzer is candid, once more, in the chapter on liberal professors and intellectuals. Here is where he puts his “terse and lively” content. Here is where the thoughtful reader learns for certain that what he or she is reading is a mostly cryptic critique of wokeism. Here, simply put, is where Walzer is at his most obviously Straussian.

He deals, firstly, with the new breed of activist professors and teachers, unable and unwilling to tolerate argument and good-faith enquiry. Invoking stories of students who have asked a critical question in class or dared to argue against their professor’s strenuously expressed opinion and were, consequently, “mocked or denounced as ignorant, naïve, or bigoted,” it is often leftist professor’s, Walzer posits, “self-righteous and ideologically certain,” who are guilty. Secondly, and on the other hand, Walzer chastises students all too ready to take offense. Excessively sensitive, students are canceling lectures, shutting down speakers, having professors reprimanded and disciplined, and harassing their peers, all in the name of “safety” and the prevention of causing “harm.” Perfectly safe and merely choosing to feel injured, we must stop pandering to their prejudices, Walzer implores his fellow liberal professors. 

Walzer is correct. He is correct on every one of these issues. Moreover, aside from his critique of wokeism, his political prescriptions are largely right too. Walzer is a socialist, but he will not discard markets altogether. Entrepreneurialism is necessary, as is income differentiation. Yet markets must ultimately serve the common good. It is the responsibility of governments to ensure that they do. Converging with the confusingly/unfortunately named post-liberalism, or its Leftist flank at least, Walzer stresses the importance of voluntary associations, personal relationships, and sources of belonging. Although stridently secular, he offers a useful corrective to the hard communitarianism adopted in some quarters. Arguing, on the one hand, for a year or two of national service for young people in their late teens—an excellent proposal—on the other, Walzer insists also that citizens must have the right not to participate in their communities—a critical liberal stricture.

More liberal than communitarian, it is telling perhaps that Walzer supports the European Union (EU). Here, however, as elsewhere, he has not thoroughly thought the matter through. The EU is an empire. For Walzer, though, liberalism and imperialism do not mix—not anymore, at any rate. (In a multipolar world, increasingly dominated by illiberal regimes, perhaps they should?) Secondly, the EU has open borders. Yet, pace the shallow cosmopolitanism of the Left, which eschews nationalism in all its forms, Walzer recognizes that permissive immigration policies are destructive to welfare states. Walzer does not conceptualize an EU minus the Schengen Agreement or its neoliberal constitution. From the perspective of liberal socialism, liberal democracy, and liberal nationalism, or even liberal feminism, his analysis here is a mess.

More seriously, Walzer has seemingly yet to fathom the full threat posed by wokeism, the main subject of his book. The seizure of academic departments by woke ideologues is, he writes, “a benign substitute for seizing control of the state.” Clearly, not everything in this book is meant to be taken at face value. Nevertheless, it does seem plausible that Walzer has not fully assimilated his Gramsci or his Keynes. For, if he had, he would know that “madmen in authority” are most of the time echoing the views of “some academic scribbler of a few years back.” University appointments matter. Walzer is 88 years old. Immune to persecution, if he had correctly assessed the woke threat to the liberal sensibility he describes and champions in the book, he would probably not have written esoterically. Even still, The Struggle for a Decent Politics is an important contribution to a crucial topic. Walzer may not live in a totalitarian country, but he does live in an increasingly illiberal one where it takes courage to dissent from the woke establishment consensus. True to its name, The Struggle for a Decent Politics is, for the most part, a valorous and humanistic book.

Seamus Flaherty is a historian of ideas and the author of Marx, Engels and Modern British Socialism. He contributes book reviews to a variety of other publications, including Quillette, The Critic, and The New Criterion. 

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