The Struggle for Liberalism: A Conversation with Michael Walzer

Richard Wolin recently sat down with Michael Walzer to discuss the state of the contemporary left and Walzer’s new book, The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective.

Richard Wolin: Let’s begin by talking about what you mean by “liberal as an adjective” and why this theme is so relevant today. Why do you find it important to distinguish between liberal as an adjective and the conventional use of liberalism as an “ism”? Is it possible in contemporary politics to separate liberal as an adjective from liberalism as an ideology of possessive individualism?

Michael Walzer: I began thinking about this because of the resurgence of right politics, right nationalists, sometimes Christian or religious politics. And I was led back to think about Irving Howe’s essay from the 90s or maybe the 80s, which was called “Socialism and Liberalism: Articles of Reconciliation.” Dissent, the magazine we worked on for so long, was founded partly in response to the complacent liberalism of the 1950s; but also, of course, in response to Stalinist leftism; so it was always a war on two fronts.


Irving came to see that liberal values were an essential part of his own socialist vision, and he tried to explain what that meant. And I thought, given the politics of my own time, given the politics of the twenty-first century, it was time to think again about the ways in which a left politics should be, has to be liberal. I did not mean to endorse what passes as liberalism in Europe, which is what we call libertarianism and is really a right-wing ideology. And liberalism in in this country, which is sometimes New Deal liberalism – that is, our social democracy – or sometimes, Chicago School liberalism, which is “neo” [-liberalism] and also a right wing ideology. It seemed to me that the best way to think about the meaning of liberal in my politics and the politics of my friends was to think of it as an adjective that modifies and qualifies the character of our other commitments.

That’s how I came to the idea that I would write about liberal democrats, liberal socialists, and liberal nationalists – which is the connection that has been challenged most often – and liberal communitarians and liberal feminists; curiously, in the latter case, I haven’t had as much “pushback” as I expected. The adjective applies to liberal Jews and in similar ways to Christians and Muslims. Once I thought of liberal as an adjective, the book organized itself, because then I just had to look for the series of nouns that the adjective modified.

RW: In the book, you have a chapter on liberal nationalism. And one of your definitions of “liberal” comes from the award-winning actress and amateur political theorist, Lauren Bacall, who once said “a liberal is someone who doesn’t have a small mind.” Proceeding from this definition, isn’t the idea of liberal nationalism something of a contradiction in terms today, since across the planet, we are witnessing a regression to forms of ethnic nationalism and the tribalism. In other words, if illiberal nationalism has trumped – pardon the pun – liberal nationalism, how can a new equilibrium be established?

MW: In the world today, there is a lot more illiberal nationalism than the kind that I meant to defend. But it is important to remember that, originally, nationalism was actually a liberal doctrine, liberal in the sense that it was an ideology meant for everybody. The early Italian theorist of nationalism, Giuseppe Mazzini, was both a practitioner and organizer. What he organized was, first, Young Italy, and then Young Poland, Young Germany, and Young Switzerland. He meant nationalism to be a doctrine of self-determination for every collective self. In that sense, nationalism was a universalist doctrine, even if it had particular outcomes in each place, and you would expect Polish liberal nationalism to be different from liberal German or Italian or Swiss nationalism. But the principle of self-determination applied to all these peoples, all these collectives. It seems to me that the best way to confront the illiberal nationalists of our time is to remind them of the original meaning of nationalism, and to defend a universal program of collective self-determination.

I think that is a better strategy than the arguments for cosmopolitanism and against liberal nationalism. Cosmopolitanism is probably more of a philosophical than a political idea. I’ve always had difficulty trying to imagine how a cosmopolis would be organized politically; nevertheless, it is used as a hammer against every form of particularism, both liberal and illiberal. I think that is a great mistake. I’ve called it a mistake in the book–and I’ve called it an illiberal doctrine, because it refuses to recognize the commitments that ordinary people have, to their history and their culture, which is represented most often in national terms. To ignore those commitments or to override them seems to me an illiberal politics. So, I really believe that some version of liberal nationalism is the best response to the ultra-nationalists of our time.

RW: Would you care to speculate briefly about how one might account for this widespread reversal from civic nationalism to ethnic and illiberal nationalism?

MW: I actually believe that there are liberal versions of ethnic nationalism in the world today, as well as illiberal versions. But this also connects with identity politics. I think that most of the illiberal nationalists of our time are practicing a right-wing version of identity politics. So perhaps I should say something about the left- wing version of identity politics in order to make the contrast clear.

In the old days, we thought that the class struggle included everybody and that there was no need for particular struggles. I remember reading old German Social Democratic arguments against the feminist movement, or the Jewish autonomist or Zionist movements, or even the movement for German unification. All of that was deemed unnecessary, because once the class struggle was won, everybody would be liberated, in all directions.

That was obviously wrong. What we saw at the end of the twentieth century and in recent decades has been an insistence upon all of the struggles that were supposed to be subordinated to the class struggle. These struggles have taken on a kind of intensity and exclusiveness. Consequently, each oppressed group believes that its fight must come ahead of all the other fights. And then, anyone who opposes that emphasis, anyone who talks in universal terms – and class struggle was a universal concept – is a racist or misogynist or sometimes an antisemite.

That emphasis began as a comprehensible correction of old left politics, which repressed these different identities. But it has turned into a politics that claims a kind of monopoly on our immediate attention. You must do what we say, you must address our oppression  or our connected oppressions and nothing else matters. The general well-being doesn’t exist, class inequality is ignored; all that matters is that we are oppressed. That is a very bad form of left politics because it divides the left and alienates many potential supporters of each struggle.

Nationalism – especially in its ultra- or Christian nationalist version – is simply the right- wing version of this identity politics. It is not a politics that starts from oppression, the way that women, blacks, homosexuals, and sometimes Jews have described their politics. It starts from a threat: from the sense that we are threatened by immigrants, by blacks, and by minorities who are going to overwhelm us; hence, we will cease to be the privileged majority. We will cease to be the people who decide what Frenchness means;  the “authentically French” will no longer be able to define “French authenticity.” Instead, we will be overwhelmed.

Sometimes these fears assume ludicrous forms, as when a Polish right-wing politician announced that the acceptance of 5,000 Syrians would threaten the Polishness of Poland, despite the fact that, today, there are 38 million Poles. I don’t fully understand why 38 million Poles should feel threatened by 5000 Syrian immigrants—or some 300 million Americans by a million refugees from Central America.

There is an important role for demagogues in that situation. I don’t like to think that this is the natural politics of ordinary Poles or Americans. It is a manipulated politics. It is a threat built up for political purposes.

RW: The Polish elections of 15 October [2023], in which the ruling Law and Justice Party was defeated by a liberal, pro-EU coalition gives cause for hope!

MW: Yes, yes, Poland suddenly looks different.

RW: In the book, you state – and I quote – “Without the adjective ‘liberal’, democrats, socialists, nationalists, and all others can often be dogmatic, intolerant, and repressive.” Would it be correct, therefore, to describe your intention in writing the book as an effort to emphasize the virtues of self-limiting politics?

MW: Yes. I do think the adjective liberal is a restraining adjective. With regard to democracy, it means that majorities have to restrain themselves or, if necessary, be restrained by institutions that they create. Majorities can’t do whatever they please and the constraints – the liberal constraints – are constraints of human rights and civil liberties; so, that is definitely a limiting politics. If you think of liberal socialism, this is primarily an effort to restrain the militants of the “vanguard.” The vanguard often think that they are morally free to do what has to be done for the sake of the “vision.” However, they need to be restrained in precisely the way vanguards were restrained in social democratic parties.

Lenin famously described two forms of consciousness: revolutionary consciousness and trade union consciousness. He wanted to see the triumph of revolutionary consciousness, because trade unions, while they might slightly improve the condition of the working class, made the working class less militant, less mobilized for the revolution. But in fact, in all of the social democratic parties, trade union consciousness triumphed and imposed limits on what the revolutionaries could and could not do.

I think the same sense of constraint holds with respect to liberal nationalism, and even with respect to liberal communitarianism. There, I take the danger to be a kind of over-heatedness; as a result, there was not enough room for private pursuits.

With regard to liberal Judaism, it means a commitment to a religion that tolerates internal differences and accommodates or seeks coexistence with difference outside. It stands opposed to the dogmatism of those who say that only people who believe this or that will be saved, only people who believe this or that will be admitted to the world to come.

I could also talk about liberal professors, who are constrained in the classroom, if, for example, they want – say, as a political theorist – to defend socialism. They are obligated – and this is a constraint – to make sure that their students learn the strongest arguments against their own position. That is what liberalism requires, and it is obviously a constraint on the way that professors – including many left-wing political theorists – talk.


RW: Since we are now talking about professors, why don’t we segue to the university. On college campuses, we have seen that the left – or what today passes for the left – has embraced an illiberal and dogmatic identity politics. As a result, what Freud once referred to, in a different context, as the “narcissism of minor differences” seems to have triumphed. These developments reflect the left’s abandonment of its traditional focus on social inequality in favor of narrow claims associated with cultural politics – claims that, in practice, can often become self-marginalizing. How did we get there?

MW: Actually, with respect to some of these student groups, I hope they are self-marginalizing.

There are two different things at stake here. There is identity politics on campus, which has the same form as the identity politics more broadly. When students of different race, religion, ethnicity, or gender, group themselves together, break off relations that should exist across the groups, and insist that their oppression takes precedence over everything else, and that they must be accommodated, for example, with a university center, with housing for themselves, with “sealed” classes in which their ideology is the only thing that is heard, and in student organizations that are really not part of the civil society of the university.

The second version of left/identity politics on campus today is what we have seen most recently–after the Hamas atrocities of 7 October: viz., a more general doctrine claiming that the oppressed are morally free, that oppression gives the oppressed the right to do whatever they feel is necessary for their liberation, including any form of violence and any form of barbarism. And it is said that these views must be accepted by everybody, in part because “everybody” – that is, all Americans – are themselves oppressors; therefore, we are not entitled to criticize the actions of the oppressed.

Each group wants to be the most oppressed and the focus of everyone else’s commitment. What gets lost here is the old left belief in coalition politics: that we help each other and we support each other, the idea that no American minority can make it politically on its own.

The politics of coalition among the left started during the 30s. At the time, it was blacks and Jews, but it has extended to the gay community and to feminists – not all of them, but many of them – who recognize the importance of allies from outside of the group. I think the campuses once were a place where those coalitions somehow worked.

I can remember the moment when it failed. In 1960, at Harvard, some of us traveled to the South and wrote about the Civil Rights Movement. We then helped to organize the Northern protests, the picketing outside of the Woolworths stores, which was meant to force them to integrate, to serve coffee at their lunch counters to black youth.

At one point I was invited by a group of black students to contribute to a book—a chapter about the Northern response. They produced their own personal stories of the sit-ins in the South, and I wrote an essay on what we called the Northern Support Movement. I sent in my piece, and I didn’t hear back. Finally, I received a very polite note from the black students saying that they had decided that the book should only contain articles by blacks. That was during the early 1960s. And that was the moment when I first saw identity politics at work and its consequences for the old coalitions; that was a gentle example; thereafter, it didn’t get better. . .That was the beginning, and there are many of us who can retrace the steps from civil rights to identity politics.

RW: I’m wondering – since this issue comes up on occasion – about your views on whether the contemporary left’s recourse to identity politics and groupthink deserves some of the blame for the backlash of white identity politics that, since Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, has emerged with a vengeance, culminating in the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

MW: I’ve thought about that question and have worried that some of the good things that the left has done – for example, defending immigrants – has created a white backlash. After the murder of George Floyd – this is my first response – there were white and black people demonstrating together across the country; and I think that was obviously a good thing. For the most part, it didn’t degenerate into riots, smashing store windows, etc. It was good politics, looking back to the protests of the early sixties, but I’m sure that it produced a backlash among some whites.

Interestingly, when Black Lives Matter put forward a radical proposal to turn the Minneapolis Police Department into a public safety organization that included social workers and counselors etc., a referendum was held and a majority of the black population voted against the proposal. What started off as a potentially politically productive protest was taken over by the militants – by the vanguard – with a proposal  (not a bad proposal) that they never discussed with their own people. As a result, they ended up losing a vote that, if it had been organized differently, they might have won. So, yes. Both the good things that the left does and some of the vanguardist adventures that the militants engage in potentially have a backlash effect. I don’t know how one can avoid the negative effects of the good things we do.

I am trying to make an old left argument, beginning with an observation that I think is very important. The Civil Rights Movement had significant successes. They fell short of what we had hoped for, but they resulted in significant successes for black people. The women’s movement has also had some astonishing – albeit, still incomplete – successes. The gay liberation has also had some astonishing successes – also incomplete. Nevertheless, despite these successes and achievements, America has become a less equal society. And that is a problem that people on the left have to talk about.

One of the forms that all of these successes has taken is simply to open up the hierarchy to new groups, without, however, changing the steepness of the hierarchy.

Now, it’s very important to recognize the benefits that these successes have brought to women, blacks, and gay people. At the same time, we must recognize the need for a more inclusive politics, which, in my view, is a class politics; this might be a way of bringing in people who are hostile to what they see as the gains of each particular group. If we managed to achieve a more general advance, then the more particular advances among blacks, women, and gay people might be easier for all Americans to accept.

RW: The advances that you describe remind me of Judith Shklar’s description of American promise and the American dream as a “quest for inclusion.” Here, the irony is that, as you say, more groups have been included, but within the ideological framework of a characteristically American “possessive individualism” that often precludes lateral political alliances.

Let’s move on to some more recent issues and concerns: issues and concerns that, after 9/11, have become increasingly important. You’ve written a series of important articles on the failures of the left to measure up to standards of political “decency.” The first of these articles – which appeared in 2002, I believe – was called “Can There be a Decent Left?” It focused on left-wing reactions to the al Qaeda attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan. Then, in 2015, in Dissent you published a widely read and much discussed essay on “Islamism and the Left”, which criticized the left’s misguided identification with Islamic fundamentalist movements such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. Members of the “hard” or “illiberal” left had misconstrued these movements as “anti-imperialist” and “anti-globalist.” In “Islamism and the Left,” you correctly pointed out that, in the case of Islamic fundamentalism, we are dealing with movements that are theocratic and authoritarian. In addition, they are also proxies of Iran’s Shi’ite dictatorship. These movements have systematically violated many of the values that Social Democratic left has long supported: women’s rights, international standards of humanitarian law, and so forth. Would it be correct to understand many of your arguments and concerns in In Search of a Decent Politics as an outgrowth of these previous critiques?

MW: I have argued against the positions you have just described for many, many years; they have made an extraordinary, horrifying re-appearance in recent days as so many members of what I view as the indecent left have celebrated the barbaric [October 7] attacks against Israeli Jews by Hamas, a far-right, ultranationalist, theocratic organization, which is brutally repressive to its own people.

It is necessary once again to address the claim that these so-called leftists make that Hamas can do no wrong; and that, as Americans, because we are supposedly the oppressors, we can never criticize whatever they do, we have no standing to criticize them. However, every human being has “standing” to criticize barbaric acts – not only “standing,” but obligations. The oppressed have obligations like everyone else.

I remember a quotation from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier: “[I believe that] the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong [is] a mistaken theory, but [it is] the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself.” Orwell had served in Burma in the imperial civil service, so he had some standing to say, “I was one of the oppressors myself but I know that the oppressed also can act badly.” Most of these young Americans who support Hamas are not really oppressors even if they claim the title for all of us. Their politics is extremely ugly and I think disastrous for any long-term leftist project.

I have made something of a career criticizing terrorism, starting with the terrorism of the IRA [Irish Republican Army] and the FLN [Front de Libération National] in Algeria. People my age remember a scene from the “Battle of Algiers” where the FLN – I think a woman, actually *– places a bomb in a café where people are dancing. That actually happened; it is not an invention of the movie script writer. That is when I began criticizing such events and actions, and I have been at it ever since. There is a lot of tolerance or even support for actions of this kind, which I think are not only abhorrent to everyone on the left but also, as I just said, politically disastrous.

The reason is summed up in a line from Trotsky. The terrorist wants to make people happy without the participation of the people. Terrorism is an elitist action by a few people who are ready for suicide or martyrdom; people who, more importantly, are ready to kill the innocent. Such conduct is already incipiently authoritarian, because the actors proceed without the support of the people–because they cannot create or are not interested in creating a mass movement. They are uninterested in acts of protest, civil disobedience, or general strikes. Instead, they want to kill; and, as in Algeria, they end up creating an authoritarian state. That is the natural effect of terrorism as a political practice. It is a denial of the values that the left should stand for, and it is also a politics that ends in authoritarianism.

RW: It reminds one of the debates, following the Russian Revolution, between Social Democracy and Leninist “vanguardism”: in particular, the Bolsheviks’ brazen justification of terror to achieve political ends. This mindset was infused with new life with the rise of decolonization movements and the glorification of so-called Third Worldism on the part of the Western left. Under the influence of charismatic thinkers such as Franz Fanon – who remains an icon among Postcolonial Studies enthusiasts – it often resulted in uncritical solidarity with anticolonial movements. Ultimately, its advocates embrace the view that terrorism is legitimate as a “weapon of the weak.” In the academy today, among proponents of postcolonial studies, these attitudes are extremely widespread. Undoubtedly, these convictions help to explain the academic left’s defense of moral and cultural relativism, as well as its demonization of Enlightenment reason, which, formerly, was an intellectual sine qua non for progressive left-wing thought and practice.

In conclusion, I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about this cultural-political “arc,” whose trajectory spans several decades, and we how we can we got there, so to speak.

MW: Well, I certainly believe that the anticolonial struggles and the struggles for national liberation were justified, and that, in the end, it was important for Western liberals and leftists to support them. But it is also important to criticize them when they go wrong: when they produce regimes which are perhaps the natural consequence of both colonial history and pre-colonial history.

The history of these anticolonial movements shows that some of them produced authoritarian, anti-democratic regimes. At this point, the response of the left should have been to say: Ok, these local forms of authoritarianism may be better than imperial forms of authoritarianism; but there are still political struggles leading toward a democratic socialist society that have to emerge and that we have to support.

Instead, many leftists feel that they are obligated to support any regime that emerged out of anti-Western politics, and that has been disastrous for the left.  These regimes needed critical support, support that was genuinely and effectively critical. Third World authoritarianism succeeded Stalinism as one of the pathologies of the left. There was no reason not to say: OK, this is a partial success; you have liberated yourself from imperial domination; now you have to break with a local domination.

Recently, these “pathologies” have continued–as when the girls and women of Iran rebelled against their rulers in the name of freedom, including freedom of dress. I remember an article in Jacobin magazine calling for international support for the girls and women of Iran. That call or summons was necessary because international support was lacking. At the time, I remember wondering about the relative silence of American feminists with respect to Iran. Why weren’t they jumping to support Iranian women, why weren’t they marching and demonstrating outside of the Iranian UN office?

I think the idea was that Westerners should not protest because Iran is a bastion of oppositional, anti-Western politics. According to this view, Westerners should not criticize a government of that kind. Some feminists argued that Islam did indeed dictate how women should dress, but how women dress in the West is dictated by the American fashion industry—it is pretty much the same thing. No, it isn’t, as the women of Iran proved. Lost on the American feminists—but how can it be lost?–is the fact that, here, there are no theocrats with the political power to coerce women.

No Westerner should think that there are entitlements to terrorists or dictators that derive from injustices the we committed in the past (or still). The criminality of Western colonialism as a whole does not entitle postcolonial regimes to repress their own people. Fundamentally, there are no such entitlements.

RW: Thank you, Michael, both for your time and for your valuable political insights.

* Djamila Bouhired – ed.

Michael Walzer is professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey. His many books include Spheres of Justice, Just and Unjust Wars, and A Foreign Policy for the Left. His most recent book is The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective.

Richard Wolin is Distinguished Professor of History, Political Science, and Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His many books include Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas and Herbert MarcuseThe Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s, and a new edition of The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of Martin Heidegger. His most recent book is Heidegger in Ruins: Between Philosophy and Ideology.

Read Richard Wolin’s most recent Logos article HERE


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