The Chronicle Review

Michael Walzer's Politics, in Theory and Practice

Peter Valck

As a political theorist, Walzer says, he has a special freedom to move between the academic and political worlds.
June 03, 2012

Before all the talk about "public intellectuals," Michael Walzer was one. For 50 years, he has gone back and forth between positions at Princeton and Harvard Universities and then at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J., where he is now emeritus, and more public climes, regularly writing for Dissent magazine, which he has co-edited for many years, and The New Republic, where he is a contributing editor.

As he wrote in The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century (Basic Books, 1988), he believes that "criticism follows from connection." That goes against the usual view that an intellectual surveys politics from an Archimedean height, which creates a "thin" attachment. Walzer reasons that if an intellectual were truly separate from other people, "a stranger, really disinterested, it is hard to see why he would involve himself in their affairs."

Last November, I sat down with the political philosopher to ask about his work and career, and he elaborated with a metaphor: "The critic is in the cave and is committed to the well-being of the other people who are there with him."

One commitment that Walzer has maintained is to the Jewish community, and he has examined the relation of religion and politics throughout his career. In his new book, In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible (Yale University Press), he poses these questions of the Bible's various books: "How is political society conceived? How should political power be used? ... When is it right to go to war? What are the obligations of ordinary citizens or subjects?"

Walzer has asked such fundamental questions, about war, justice, community, and what it means to be an intellectual, in books such as Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations (Basic Books, 1977), which has sold over 150,000 copies. He has also been questioning our actual politics, within the United States and without, in Vietnam, Israel, Iraq, and other parts of the globe, in the occasional op-ed in The New York Times and elsewhere, and in books such as Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), which he edited with Nicolaus Mills.

The idea of connection leads Walzer to emphasize the ways in which people shape their values in communities, whether national, religious, or ideological. This view is sometimes called "communitarianism." While the standard theory of liberalism, for instance of John Locke or Walzer's onetime colleague at Harvard, John Rawls, stresses the rights of individuals, Walzer focuses instead on how rights are formed in the context of a group or community. As suggested by the title of another of his books, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (Basic Books, 1983), he does not have a one-size-fits-all theory of justice but finds that it is always adjudicated in particular contexts.

In some ways, Walzer is an inheritor of the New York Intellectuals, a group prominent in the 1940s through the 1970s for their comments on politics and culture. Walzer was a student of one of the leading members of that group, Irving Howe, who was a lifelong socialist as well as a literary and cultural critic, and who helped found Dissent in 1954. However, Walzer became a New York Intellectual in Waltham, Mass.

After growing up in Jewish communities in New York and Johnstown, Pa., where his family had a small jewelry store, Walzer went to Brandeis University, in Waltham, in 1952, when the university was just four years old. There he took courses with Howe and another New Yorker, the sociologist Lewis A. Coser, although he took most of his courses in history. Walzer took only a sophomore survey of literature with Howe, but it made an impression. In our interview he recalled, "I came home at winter break and told my parents that I wanted to be an intellectual when I grew up. They asked, as many parents have in similar situations, 'How do you make a living?' I said, 'By becoming a professor, I guess.'"

With Howe and Coser, he read the major European intellectuals of the time—Albert Camus, George Orwell, and Ignazio Silone, who would later fill the roster of The Company of Critics. He also got invited to the launch party of Dissent, and soon started writing for the magazine. After graduating, he recounted, "My effort to imitate Irving Howe led me to write three pieces of literary criticism," including one on the British play Look Back in Anger. "After that, I decided that there were other things I did better."

One of them was politics, and for graduate school he went to the government department at Harvard because it afforded him a "political-theory license." Political science, he observed, "was a very open field at the time—that was before the rational-choice people got to it. You could write history, you could write biography, you could do political theory." He was interested in the history of revolutions, but chose the Puritan rather than the French instance for his dissertation. He admitted, "My French was not good enough, so I had to fall back on my English." But the choice also augured his persistent concern with the ways that religion runs through political life. His dissertation became his first book, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (Harvard University Press, 1965).

The openness of the political-theory license was abetted by the fact that the academic world was in an "expansive phase," Walzer recalled. The GI Bill is legendary for its effect on American higher education. Yet the postwar boom may have had a greater impact not on those born in the teens or 1920s, who served in World War II, but on the subsequent generation, those born in the 1930s, like Walzer. At Harvard he studied politics with others of that generation, including Gabriel Kolko, who became a leading critic of American foreign policy, the historians Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, and Martin Peretz, who became the editor of The New Republic. "But," he told me, "I don't think I could have survived as a graduate student without Dissent."

He had already written several pieces for the magazine, and in early 1960, after reports of the first sit-ins in the South, "Irving Howe called me and asked me to go down there for Dissent. I was reading Puritan sermons and writing my dissertation, but I dropped that and just went." However, it was not as distant as one would expect: "I found myself listening to Baptist sermons on Exodus. So I had to come back and tell my ex-Trotskyist colleagues at Dissent that this was not a revolt of the workers and peasants; this was a heavily religiously inflected movement."

I asked Walzer whether he felt a split personality when moving between academic and political worlds, but he replied, "I found it fairly easy because of the political-theory license." He went on to muse, "Purely academic work never entirely appealed to me. I always used to think that had I been in Europe where there was a social-democratic party, I might have ended up as the editor of the party journal, the 'theoretical journal' as it was called, of the German or French or British socialists. I don't think I would've become an academic. But in the United States, that career wasn't available."

Another advantage of the political-theory license is that you can deal with politics in teaching. "Political theorists have a license to do something that other academics don't have: to defend a political position in the classroom and in the learned journals," he explained. So he could give a course, for instance, on socialism and "let students know I had views." He was careful to add, "I presented opposing views in their strongest versions, which I didn't have to do at a political meeting."

Walzer was active in the civil-rights movement in the early 1960s, but as the decade wore on he focused more on the Vietnam War. He commented, "The early moment in the civil-rights movement was a moment of a very close black and Jewish collaboration. Later on, there were breaks in that collaboration and tensions. With the rise of Black Nationalism, whites in general were invited to step aside, and we did." After teaching at Princeton for several years, he moved back to Harvard, and he immersed himself in campaigns against the war.

His speaking and organizing about Vietnam prompted him to think about political obligations—resulting in Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War, and Citizenship (Harvard University Press, 1970) and Political Action: A Practical Guide to Movement Politics (Quadrangle Books, 1971)—and about war—resulting in Just and Unjust Wars. He narrated how he came to the latter: "I was running around the country talking against the war and using a language of 'unjust war,' 'intervention,' 'noncombatant immunity,' 'shielding civilians.' Where was this coming from? I was drawing on an intellectual tradition I didn't know much about, so I began to read Catholic just-war theory, and the book is really a secularization of Catholic just-war doctrine."

Just-war theory uses a moral framework to establish fair principles to enter war, conduct it, and rebuild after it. For example, Walzer argues that governments have an obligation to identify combatants and thus not kill indiscriminately. That sounds reasonable, but it is not as clear as one might think. A realist might say that modern warfare makes it impossible to determine combatants, or that collateral damage is inevitable, or that civilians participate in their government's policies. Walzer's work stresses the moral imperatives of politics, and his distinctions about war have had some influence. While most observers would not consider the second President Bush an exemplar of philosophical probity, his administration went to great lengths to define those it held as prisoners as "enemy combatants." That is because it was responding to just-war theory. Whether it did so in good faith or cynically is a different question.

From Harvard, in 1980 Walzer was appointed to a professorship at the iconic Institute for Advanced Study. Throughout, he has continued to work with Dissent, for over 50 years on its board and for half that time serving as co-editor. Though 77, he still keeps a full schedule; when I interviewed him, he had just come from giving a talk at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, and he was on his way to an evening meeting of Dissent's staff. Walzer edits the magazine with Michael Kazin, son of the New York Intellectual Alfred Kazin and himself a well-known historian. They do four issues a year, as well as oversee its online features, such as "Arguing the World." (I should note that I occasionally contribute to Dissent.)

Throughout his career, Walzer has been in dialogue with other political theorists, like Rawls or Robert Nozick, with whom he once taught a course on socialism versus capitalism. But I was struck by how his theoretical stance, eschewing universal or transhistorical measures and stressing plurality and the particular, has affinities with literary and cultural theorists whom I'm more familiar with, for instance the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and the American pragmatist Richard Rorty. They are of the same generation, born in the 1930s, and they pit themselves against transcendental reference points and master narratives or truths, instead stressing the centrality of interpretation and historical contingency.

Walzer confirmed my impression. "I was writing against the Marxist school of critical theory, who believe that, if you are to function politically at all, you need to have a big world-historical theory. I do not believe that; I have come to believe that it is useful to have pieces of a theory, but big meta-theories more often produce arrogance and authoritarianism in the movement or in the state. The moral understandings of the critic are more important in shaping and giving power to the criticism than the grand theory."

His view prompts his politics: "The politics I'm closest to is a kind of liberal socialism. But my version of social democracy is one that tries to take into account the need that people have for community, which social democrats often ignored because they were focused so much on the state and what it has to do."

Among the various communities that Walzer belongs to, perhaps his deepest personal connection is with the American Jewish community. He also travels regularly to Israel, and he defends its right to self-determination. In Just and Unjust Wars, he deems Israel's role in the 1967 Six-Day War a fitting one and a good victory. Still, he is critical of the nation's current policy. He commented that when he and his wife, the literary scholar and former provost of the New School, Judith Walzer, first visited Israel in 1957, "it was a much smaller country." The 1967 victory, he said, "opened the way for Israeli right-wingers and religious Messianists to adopt an expansionist politics that I have been critical of since Day 1, since the first settlement."

In keeping with his view that "what most people need is a state of their own," he believes that there should be a Palestinian state, although he remarks this is not disinterested: "There is a sense in which Israel needs a Palestinian state right now more than the Palestinians do, because Israel won't be a Jewish state unless it is a smaller state."

One of Walzer's first articles in Dissent was a criticism of the French in Algeria, and when I pressed him that a critic now might see Israel's relation to the Palestinians similarly, he retorted, "Yes, but no one who criticized French policy in Algeria called the existence of France into question." Too often, he added, the European left is hostile toward Israel.

Inside Israeli politics, he believes that "Israel needs a separation of synagogue and state." That's what has motivated much of his recent scholarly work, such as the two-volume collection he co-edited, The Jewish Political Tradition (Yale University Press, 2000), and In God's Shadow. As he put it to me, he wants to "deny the orthodox a monopoly on the tradition. This tradition has to be accessible and criticizable by everybody. In the hands of the orthodox, it can produce a very nasty politics. We have to get a grip on the tradition and start a process something like the Reformation of Catholic Christianity." Against fundamentalists, for instance, who look to the Bible for one foundational truth, Walzer finds it to support pluralism in its inclusivity. There is no one biblical writer nor view.

Of In God's Shadow, he says, "I'm a trespasser in this field. Since biblical scholarship is a field of such erudition, with people who know six ancient languages, I have been very hesitant." He pondered the project for 20 years, he said, "but now I figure that I am getting too old to wait any longer." He announced his goal as simply "to figure out what the biblical writers thought about politics."

Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book, co-edited with Heather Steffen, The Critical Pulse: Thirty-Six Credos by Contemporary Critics, will be published in September by Columbia University Press. Several of his essays, notably on student debt, have appeared in Dissent.

Correction (6/11/2012): The original version of this article misreported that Michael Walzer edited Dissent alone until Michael Kazin joined as co-editor. From 1991 to 2008, Mitchell Cohen co-edited Dissent with Walzer. The article has been changed to reflect this correction.