Review Essay: J. Toby Reiner, Michael Walzer (Polity Press, 2020); Michael Walzer and Astrid von Busekist, Justice is Steady Work: A Conversation on Political Theory (Polity Press, 2020)

Poking around a used book store during my third year of college, I came across a copy of Michael Walzer’s 1980 essay collection Radical Principles. Walzer’s name was familiar: I had browsed Dissent, the journal he edited, in the college library, and my social theory professor had assigned an essay from that book, a critique of the neo-conservatives entitled “Nervous Liberals.”

I still have the book; pencil-marked and rough-cornered, it is an old friend. When I bought it, I was an “activist”: a nervous leftist, heady with my first reading of Marx, fluttering from protest to protest, indignant about human rights violations and welfare reform and Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America and eager to impress my indignation on everyone I met. I found in Walzer’s essays a way of being on the left that was new to me: calm but not complacent, radical but not alienated, democratic in both principle and manner. Walzer, in other words, was the writer who showed me how to think like a social democrat.

Two recent books from Polity Press—one a scholarly monograph surveying his career to date, the other a series of interviews with him—invite their readers to reflect on why Walzer’s political thought matters. Where most responses to Walzer’s work focus on one or two facets of the writings he has published over the past six decades, these books each aim to take in the whole picture. The Walzer they portray is the same Walzer I found in Radical Principles: “the most important social-democratic theorist in the contemporary USA,” in J. Toby Reiner’s words (3), or as Astrid von Busekist describes him, “a man of conviction” who “reminds [his left-wing readers] of the virtues of moderation and patience” (1, 4). If Walzer were merely another defender of the welfare state or of industrial democracy, he would be a welcome but unremarkable voice in American life. What makes Walzer’s writings important, as Reiner and von Busekist both show, is that he works out the moral and intellectual implications of social democracy as few others have done. Where authoritarian socialists look to a vanguard of leaders intellectually removed from the people around them, Walzer proposes that democratic social critics should think and speak as members of communities. Where authoritarian socialists and anti-political liberals alike look to grand and esoteric theories of society or of justice, Walzer makes modest intellectual claims, relying on “small theories” (as he tells von Busekist, 120). Social democratic politics, as Walzer sees it, entails both an intellectual method, which he has called “connected” or “interpretive” social criticism, and a certain style of writing, what Reiner calls “ecumenical writing” (173) and which von Busekist describes as “pure language, unadorned, appropriate and precise,” in the tradition of essayists like George Orwell (2). Reiner and von Busekist both make clear how urgently the American left today, nervous and impatient as it is, needs Walzer’s voice.

Reiner’s book, the first comprehensive study of Walzer’s work, is a careful and astute exposition of the main lines of his arguments about justice in war, “complex” equality, multiculturalism, global justice, the relationship between religion and politics, and the interpretive method of social criticism. Reiner shows how Walzer’s thinking has developed in response to both friends and critics, noting the influence of Dissent founders Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, teachers like Louis Hartz and Samuel Beer, and colleagues like Clifford Geertz. (Another helpful feature of Reiner’s book is that his bibliography, while not purporting to be a comprehensive list of Walzer’s publications or of writings responding to Walzer, comes close to being so anyway. Among the secondary sources he mentions, I should note, is an unpublished paper of mine.)

Reiner has a good eye for the themes and connections within Walzer’s arguments. “Walzer’s importance,” he writes, lies equally in his “social-democratic alternative” to the dominant currents of American political thought and in the “situated approach to political theory” that he derived from his political commitments (165). The order is crucial: the political commitment comes first. From the Dissent circle—the journal’s founders were among his undergraduate teachers at Brandeis University in the 1950s, and he wrote regularly for the journal from its third issue onwards, eventually becoming its editor, a position from which he retired in 2013—Walzer absorbed not only an appreciation for intellectual life but also a consistently anti-totalitarian democratic radicalism and a hunger for a sincerely American left-wing politics. Where the Dissent founders shared a style, Walzer has developed an intellectual method. Reiner ably disaggregates the pieces of that method, introducing terms like “the meaning-dependent thesis,” “the social-meaning thesis,” and “critical conventionalism.” I have studied Walzer’s works for years, and I learned much from Reiner’s detailed exposition. The core of Walzer’s approach is simple enough to convey, however. Reiner puts Walzer’s premise well: “the societies in which we live are moral worlds that contain the resources necessary for their improvement” (71). This means, Walzer argues, that the proper role of a social critic is not philosophical detachment or cultural alienation or reliance on truths known only to the few but rather what Reiner calls a “marginalized attachment” (148), the stance of a cultural insider somewhat removed from power but immersed in a world of fellow citizens, speaking a common language and appealing to commonly-recognized (if not commonly-upheld) principles. Where standard political theory seems to imitate the voice of a courtier whispering in the ear of the king, Walzer’s political theory imitates the voice of a community organizer starting where the people are.

Everything else distinctive about Walzer’s political thought follows from this approach to social criticism, Reiner suggests. Walzer’s vision of “complex equality” in which a society prevents inequalities in one sphere of life (say, the market) from breaking into other spheres (say, access to healthcare or political office); his critique of the rarified conversations imagined by theorists of deliberative democracy; his insistence that a society professing to be democratic should make its workplaces democratic; his notion of a “reiterative universalism” in which each society’s internal critics push it toward justice in the name of its own values: all these arguments stem from Walzer’s effort to think in a political way, which is to say in a way that is local or situated. Walzer is sometimes classed as a “communitarian” political thinker, but this is at best half right: the pluralism on which he insists leaves him wary of any unitary civic or cultural loyalty. Likewise, his localism and pluralism lead him to be a social democrat of a particular kind, dissenting from Fabian and progressive visions of the benevolent administrative state: he calls for a “decentralized democratic socialism” in which the welfare state is “run, in part at least, by local and amateur officials” and in which “workers’ control of companies” is one element of a participatory “politics of parties, movements, meetings, and public debate” (quoted in Reiner, 80).

However keen Reiner’s sense of Walzer’s arguments may be, he devotes less attention to the mood and tone of Walzer’s writings. This leads to some oddly off-key moments. Reiner quotes Walzer’s remark that the city Walt Whitman depicts in his poem “Song of the Broad-Axe” is “easy in its democratic faith, untouched by the terrors of the twentieth century,” telling his readers that Whitman’s city is, simply, Walzer’s vision of what “the good society looks like” (81). Yet Walzer’s reference to Whitman is poignant, not simple: what he actually writes is not that Whitman’s city is “easy” but that it is “too easy” in its democratic faith. Easy faith is precisely what Walzer thinks our political thinking cannot assume.

Thus Reiner mostly ignores what may be the most puzzling tension within Walzer’s work. Walzer is unmistakably a member of the ethical socialist tradition, the tradition of non-Marxist democratic egalitarians like Howe, Orwell, R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, and Ignazio Silone. Theirs is in large part a defensive or conservative politics, in the sense that it aims to conserve something good that already exists. (Think here of Polanyi’s definition of socialism as the “self-protection of society” against the overbearing market economy, a formulation about which Walzer, to my knowledge, has never written, but one in keeping with his argument about the “spheres of justice.”) It is a modern tradition ill at ease with modernity. Reiner misses the opportunity to sort out Walzer’s place in that tradition. He notes but scarcely comments on the departures from modernism that recur in Walzer’s works, like his claim that “the deep principles of the Left…have their origins in the pre-liberated world” (quoted on 81), his revival of the pre-revolutionary idea of “resistance” as a mode of political action (86), or his nods to the Scholastic style of “casuistic” argument (18). From the earlier ethical socialists, Walzer conveys the possibility of a socialist politics that does not worship progress and innovation; this may be among his best (and least appreciated) contributions to the American left.

Yet while seeking to conserve the social world and its shared moral traditions, Walzer seems uninterested in understanding the core of that which he wants to conserve. Reiner attributes to Walzer the idea that “people create their own versions of goodness” (99), but this isn’t quite right. What Reiner calls Walzer’s “social-meaning thesis” and “meaning-dependent thesis” imply a definition of the human, the kind of premise that philosophers call an anthropology. Minimally, Walzer’s arguments suggest that humans, everywhere, are meaning-seeking creatures. But there seems to be a thicker conception of personhood just offstage: if the goods a society distributes to its members ought to be distributed to those members in a way true to the meanings society’s members have imputed to them, then the meaningfulness of human life-in-society is the premise of all socially-constructed values, and cannot itself be simply a social construction. Painstaking in exploring what the principle of equality entails, Walzer remains averse to spelling out why egalitarian community matters in the first place. In Spheres of Justice, for example, after asking “by virtue of what characteristic” human persons deserve to be equal to one another, he answers: “I don’t know.” Walzer has political reasons for this aversion to fundamental questions. Connected social critics, he has written, need to think “inside the cave.” An appeal to truths outside the shared moral world of the critic’s own society ruptures the critic’s connection with his or her fellows, and Walzer worries that too clear an answer to such fundamental questions takes the critic outside the cave. I am not sure that this is correct. I will have something more to say about that, but for now I want simply to point out the tension: Walzer’s politics are premised on equality, yet Walzer doesn’t want to speak about the premises of equality.

As though it might distract from his efforts to demonstrate the unity of Walzer’s thought, Reiner downplays this tension, making only passing mention of Walzer’s aversion to “Grand Theory…in the traditional philosophical style” (164). To get a feel for the relationship between Walzer’s ethical socialism and his disinclination to write about ethical foundations, it is helpful to read von Busekist’s interviews. Von Busekist asks superb questions, drawing Walzer out on questions about which he has not written, especially regarding his intellectual biography. She begins with a cogent and elegant account of what makes Walzer’s political thought “unique and vital” (2), emphasizing the connection between his commitment to democratic politics and his conviction that the interpretive social critic “does not feel the need to have the final say” (7), and suggesting that Jewish themes are among the “threads that [tie] Walzer’s work together” (1). Reading the interviews, it is not hard to see how Walzer came to develop such an acute sense of what it is like to have a marginalized attachment, to stand “a little to the side,” as he says a social critic should. Having grown up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in a Jewish community big enough to be noticeable but too small to be a world of its own, a member of the generation that bridged the Old and New Lefts, shaped by dual (and, it seems, not always harmonious) educations in the Dissent tradition of social criticism and in academic political theory, Walzer presents himself as a pluralist (almost) all the way down: “I think of myself as engaged, committed, but maybe not fully engaged anywhere” (except, he adds, with his grandchildren) (37).

If these interviews give us a sense of Walzer’s ambivalent memberships, that only deepens the significance of the moments when Walzer speaks to von Busekist about his enduring commitments. “I often thought that I was boringly consistent,” he remarks; “I started as a social democrat, I will end as a social democrat” (133). The consistency is admirable; the gulf between Walzer’s sensibility and that of his mentor Howe, who called socialism “the best problem to which a political intellectual can attach himself,” is striking. One never gets the sense that Walzer finds his social democracy problematic, that it is something that he wrestles with or needs to explain to himself.

Even more telling is Walzer’s response to a question from von Busekist about “defensible” forms of belonging: “Why do I love the Jewish people in exactly the way Hannah Arendt said she couldn’t? The explanation is difficult for modern, secular, emancipated men and women. It has something to do with the fact that my grandparents lived in a certain way, with memories, celebrations, rituals, and moral commitments that are still part of my life and that I want to be part of my grandchildren’s life. And all this I share with other people, who have similar grandparents and similar hopes for their grandchildren. And these people, across the generations, share my obsessions and laugh at my jokes” (111-112). This is a lovely statement, as good an account as any I know of what it is like to be loyal to a religious community for the sake of the community itself. Walzer’s statement is also notable for what it doesn’t say. A “modern, secular, emancipated” reader might recoil from Walzer’s appreciation for the non-emancipated life, for being ensconced in a multi-generation community defined by memory and commitment. But from what Walzer says here, that reader might not notice that the celebrations and rituals he refers to are anything but modern and secular.

The point is not only that Walzer talks about religious community without emphasizing its religious character. Consider a moment in von Busekist’s interviews when she asks whether Walzer agrees that there is “an ethical foundation, a deep system of morality” in his writings. He responds: “Yes,…but I have never tried to write about the foundations of ethics. And it’s not because I believe there are no arguments that could be made…The metaphor I have always used is: we are living in a house. We assume the house has a foundation, but I’ve never gone down there. I am trying to describe the living space, the shape of the rooms—and to suggest better ways of furnishing the house” (117-118). Reading this passage alongside the one about belonging, we might say that with regard to religious community or to political community, Walzer enjoys the house enough that he feels no need to visit the foundations. The living spaces of the house, the experience of membership itself, he suggests, can engage one’s full affections and one’s full intellectual attention.

There is considerable wisdom here. The history of the left is full of people who love humanity but act horribly toward human beings. Walzer, appreciating the experience of shared “living space,” offers a welcome alternative to that shallow universalism. But at the same time, I want to say: this won’t do. Aren’t there times when advocates of equality need to be able to account for their egalitarianism, either to orient themselves or so that they can find one another? Aren’t there times when the foundations of the house require repair?

There is a theme that runs through even the most sympathetic criticisms of Walzer’s work. Walzer is “too polite,” writes George Scialabba; his writing exhibits an “emotional flatness,” says Mark Krupnick. The quiet and measured voice of his writings, the same voice we hear in his interviews with von Busekist, is part of what makes Walzer a helpful thinker. But something is missing. I want to suggest that these two problems in Walzer’s writings, his unexplored moral foundations and his unfailing good manners, may be one. At the rare moments when Walzer reveals something about the foundations of his egalitarian commitments, he invites trouble; saying more about those foundations would invite still more trouble.

Walzer’s strongest and most direct case for equality—in these books or, I think, anywhere in his writings—comes in a coda to the von Busekist book: “Perhaps the oldest argument against inequality is the assertion by the writers of the Hebrew bible that all human beings are created in the image of God. This simple sentence resonated in medieval peasant revolts, among radical Protestant reformers, in the American Declaration of Independence, and in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It still a line that calls upon Americans to live up to what we say we believe. We should keep repeating it, even if some of us have to revise the biblical sentence: all human beings are created in the image of God, whether or not God exists” (169). The passage reflects Walzer’s interest in “reiterative” commonalities: whether or not Genesis 1 is a text with universal meaning, it is a text in which many groups of people have discovered comparable meanings. Walzer’s statement also raises a problem. One wonders how each of the groups he mentions, from medieval peasant rebels to civil rights workers, learned to know the same text and to see it as having some bearing on their social circumstances. There must have been in each case some process, likely quite different processes, of religious education or cultural formation. The question of why equality matters turns out to contain (at least) two questions: On what basis do we commit to the principle of equality? and How do we come to know that basis for egalitarian commitment?

Walzer writes rarely and cautiously about the first question; even this remark about creation in the image of God is at most a sketch of an answer. About the second question, he has become persistently and openly concerned. In a number of interviews over the past several years, he has expressed a worry about the “cultural reproduction of the left,” and he has suggested that his writings about the Bible and about Jewish intellectual traditions are a response to that worry. (Similarly, he tells von Busekist that he hopes for a Jewish “cultural revival” [161].) Perhaps a purely secular left could find sufficient moral resources to sustain egalitarian politics. Walzer seems to say: why gamble on that possibility? If the story that Jews (and Christians) have told about the creation of humanity impels its listeners toward seeing the image of God in every person, then cultivating the communities that tell that story can be a way to keep egalitarian politics alive.

Retrieving the intellectual legacies of religious those communities may be helpful too, and not only for those communities themselves. As both Reiner and von Busekist note, in addition to his own writings on the Bible (two books, a book chapter, and various articles), for nearly forty years Walzer has been collaborating with other scholars on a four-volume anthology of and commentary on the Jewish tradition of political thought, three volumes of which have so far been published. Following thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and Sheldon Wolin, academic political theory has often seen the ancient Greeks as the political thinkers par excellence. Walzer dissents: “To me, it’s a kind of idolatry,” he tells von Busekist, “to think that when the Athenians met in assembly and voted on whether to invade Sicily, they were citizens and free political actors in a way that we moderns can only dream about (no matter that they made the wrong decision)” (126-127). If reading the Bible and the tradition of Jewish commentary on it is not for Walzer a replacement for reading Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle, it is at least a necessary corrective. The Jewish tradition is for Walzer an alternative paradigm, albeit a knowingly incomplete one, a tradition of thought about the proper ordering of community life within a community whose members have often not held the power that the Greeks called “rule,” and thus a political tradition that thinks beyond the state.

It is also, from Genesis onward, a tradition that pushes toward social equality. Walzer again approaches the moral foundations that make him a “consistent social democrat” when he tells von Busekist: “Although I [have] tried not to read social democracy into the biblical text, I do believe that there are statements in the prophets, perhaps especially in Amos, that could inspire contemporary social democrats” (149). Invoking the Hebrew prophets, Walzer stands on dangerous ground. He is surely right that the prophets were connected social critics. It is worth noting that the community with which they were connected was constituted by memories and hopes that pointed—to use Plato’s phrase—beyond the cave. When one is connected to such a community, a refusal to ask about truths outside the cave can be itself a kind of disconnection. Connected criticism may at times require going down to the foundations of the moral world.

This is not the only kind of trouble Walzer’s Biblical turns invite. Amos, evidently his favorite among the prophets, begins his message by declaring: “The Lord roars from Zion” (1:2). Walzer has recognized that a shared moral world may need cultivation, even rebuilding. But Amos’s God seems as likely to shatter as to build. If the God who is the ground of equality roars—whether or not that God “exists”—then to seek the roots of a commitment to equality may turn out to be an unsettling experience. Biblical religion is a resource for egalitarian politics. It is also a challenge to politics as we know it; it threatens to disrupt our customary notions of political efficacy, of the boundaries of the political, even of selfhood and otherness. To make a deeply compelling case for why equality matters and to remain within the bounds of secular propriety may be incompatible objectives.

Considering Walzer’s political thought as a whole, as Reiner and von Busekist help us to do, one cannot miss the integrating element in Walzer’s many writings. Walzer has described, as well as anyone, how social democracy can be a coherent and independent political stance—neither quite liberal nor quite communitarian, thoroughly democratic, fundamentally egalitarian. It also seems to me that he has also opened up a project that extends beyond his own work. The democratic left needs to attend to its own “cultural reproduction,” and in our time that means some tending of formative communities and some kind of intellectual ressourcement. Walzer has begun to offer examples of what these can look like; appreciative of reiteration as he is, I expect that he would welcome others. What I want to add, what I think Walzer shows but does not say, is that encountering what Irving Howe called the “moral basis of socialism” may shake our thinking and habits more than we know in advance. Social democracy can be a radical tradition, a deep-rooted tradition, only at some risk, if not to its “conviction” and “patience” then at least to its modern manners.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Anthony DiMaggio: The War on Anti-Racism: The Mainstreaming of Social Movements, and the Emerging Backlash

By Joy James: The Algorithm of AntiRacism

By Lawrence Davidson: Israel’s Road to Apartheid and the Fate of International Law

By James Block: The Road Not (Yet) Taken II: From Culture Wars to a New History

By Russell Jacoby: High Court of Literary Correctness

By Benjamin Shepard: From Pandemic to Solidarity, Mutual Aid from Plague Days to Autonomous Zones

By Charles Thorpe: Toward Species Being

By Kurt Jacobsen: Stockholm Syndrome and The Trial of the Chicago 7

By Bill Nevins: Poetry Review Column

By Geoffrey Kurtz: Review Essay: J. Toby Reiner, Michael Walzer (Polity Press, 2020); Michael Walzer and Astrid von Busekist, Justice is Steady Work: A Conversation on Political Theory (Polity Press, 2020)

By Robin Melville: Review Essay: Leo Panitch & Colin Leys, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn (London: Verso: 2020)

By Benjamin Shepard: Review: Christophe Broqua, Action = Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020).

By Aidan J. Beatty: Review: Tanya Lavin, Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. New York: Hatchette Books, 2020)

By Jeremy F. Walton: Patricia Morris, Fetishism, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology (London: Author’s Collective Press, 2020).

By Warren Leming: Review: Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2021.

By Sarah Kamal: Review: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020.