From democratic socialists to right-wing populists, with plenty of anxious centrists in between, it seems like everyone agrees that liberalism is in trouble. But what about the qualities that liberals have shown at their best? In his latest book, The Struggle for a Decent Politics, longtime Dissent editor Michael Walzer argues that we can, and should, rescue the virtues of the liberal tradition from the crisis of liberalism. I spoke with Walzer about why he says that socialists should be proud to call themselves liberals—and why so many on the left disagree.
Timothy Shenk: Let’s start with the end of the book, where you write, “battles for decency and truth are among the most important political battles of our time. And the adjective ‘liberal’ is our most important weapon.” Why does so much depend on a single adjective?
Michael Walzer: If we imagine the kinds of battles that are going on over democracy, with Viktor Orbán talking about “illiberal democracy,” and with other examples, most recently in Israel; if we imagine some of the long, old arguments about the role of vanguards in the forward movement of socialism; if we think about the battles that are now going on over nationalism in many parts of the world, where we are facing an increasingly illiberal version of nationalism—in all these cases, it seems that getting democracy right, getting socialism right, getting nationalism right really hangs on getting the liberal adjective in place and insisting on the qualifications that it brings with it. I imagine those battles as hanging on the value and the effectiveness of that adjective.
Shenk: You put a lot of emphasis on the distinction between “liberal” as adjective and “liberalism” as noun. What do you see as the difference between the two?
Walzer: I began with a couple of other books. Carlo Rosselli is one of my heroes; he was a leader of the non-Communist, antifascist political resistance in Italy in the 1920s and ’30s, he was assassinated by Mussolini’s thugs in Paris in 1937, and a few years before that he published a book: Liberal Socialism. And then I have a friend, Yael Tamir, who did a dissertation with Isaiah Berlin, which produced a book called Liberal Nationalism. She served as Minister of Education in one of the last center-left governments in Israel. I was thinking about the role of the adjective in those phrases: “liberal socialism” and “liberal nationalism.” And it seemed to me that the adjective—liberal—is more useful than the noun—liberalism.
Liberalism in Europe, today, is something like “libertarianism”—it is a right-wing ideology. There used to be a left libertarianism, which is probably better called anarchism, and that persists in various sectarian versions, but it isn’t much in the public eye. And then in the United States, liberalism generally means “New Deal liberalism.” It’s our very modest version of social democracy, and it isn’t a very strong doctrine, since many of its practitioners became neoliberals much too easily. So, the -ism is not a strong or coherent doctrine. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t liberals. But liberals are people who are best defined morally or psychologically; they’re what Lauren Bacall, my favorite actress, called “people who don’t have small minds.” A liberal is someone who’s tolerant of ambiguity, who can join arguments that he doesn’t have to win, who can live with people who disagree, who have different religions or different ideologies. That’s a liberal. But those liberal qualities don’t imply any social or economic doctrine. So, there are liberals in the world, and I can recognize them, but liberalism does not describe their actual political commitment. The word is better used to qualify the kinds of commitments that I write about: democracy, socialism, nationalism, et cetera.
Shenk: It seems you’re arguing that the ideology of “liberalism” is empty at the core, but “liberal” as adjective can pull back other more substantive worldviews away from dangerous extremes. It’s a way of getting to a golden mean. For instance, a “liberal nationalism” gives you the best of a shared devotion to a larger community without licensing full-bore jingoism.
Walzer: Right. But I also want to say that a liberal nationalist is someone who is able to recognize the legitimacy of other nationalisms. The adjective is a pluralizing adjective. With regard to democracy, it implies that there is a right of opposition to the ruling party, which means that there have to be other parties.
Shenk: But there’s a tension between the role that liberal plays when you talk about “liberal socialism” and the role it plays when you talk about “liberal democracy.” With liberal democracy, “liberal” is supposed to restrain majoritarian extremism that tramples over rights. But with liberal socialism, it seems like you want to bring out the democratic element in a socialist tradition that can veer into either sectarian dogmatism (in its milder form) or outright authoritarianism (in its more extreme). It seems like you’re worried about democratic excesses in one case, and its absence in another.
Walzer: I’m not sure that the adjective does exactly the same work relative to all the nouns. But it does somewhat similar work in democracy and socialism, because with democracy, it constrains majoritarian rule, and then with socialism, it’s a constraint on the ideologically correct minority, which claims the vanguard role in producing a socialist society. It also implies that there have to be competing elements within the socialist movement. There has to be room for competing groups and for disagreement—hence, yes, liberal democracy is crucial to liberal socialism.
Shenk: You make a compelling case for the virtues of liberal as you define it. But when you look at people who self-describe as liberals in the United States today, do you think that they are living up to the best of what you see in the term?
Walzer: Well, some of them are.
Shenk: Because it’s hard for me to see liberal political culture today as an advertisement for what you’re talking about here—wisdom, irony, self-awareness.
Walzer: Yes, I agree with that. The original Dissent critique of American liberalism as it was in the 1950s was a critique of complacency and of a lack of irony.
Shenk: I’m sure you remember, Irving Howe has a takedown of Adlai Stevenson that’s still an excellent discussion of that type.
Shenk: That raises the question of how those of us on the left can move between actually existing liberalism—the stuff we see every day—and the best of the liberal tradition you want to draw upon.
Walzer: Yes, there is a liberal tradition, a John Stuart Mill-style liberalism, and I do think of myself as standing in that tradition. And it’s also interesting to me that Mill, in some of his writings, tried to produce a liberal socialism.
Shenk: And Mill’s views on liberalism and socialism did change quite a lot over the course of his life. Your book is not a memoir, but it’s more personal than one might expect from a work of political philosophy. When you look at your own career, do you think that your views have stayed more or less consistent?
Walzer: I was raised in the culture of the Popular Front. So, coming to Brandeis and meeting Irving Howe and Lew Coser, and encountering these ex-Trotskyites and their passionate critique of the Soviet Union—that was a political shock, and it was transforming for me. It pretty much established my kind of politics all at once, at age eighteen or nineteen. As a thirteen-year-old, I had written what I called “The History of World War II,” which ended with the line, “Russia fights not for the lust of conquest, but to end conquest.” So, yes, I changed my mind. But it was pretty early. And the encounter with the Dissentniks established my politics.
Shenk: And you’re going through this transformation at the peak of what historians describe as the postwar liberal consensus. Nowadays, that tradition is in a much weaker state. Why do you think there’s so much frustration with it today?
Walzer: In part, I blame the social democratic left for its capitulation to global capitalism. The failure of the left in most of Europe, and very much here, to address the growing inequality produced by contemporary capitalism is a very important explanation for the rise of a certain version of nationalist, right-wing populism. I think I understand the ordinary Americans and Europeans who have become angry at the reigning elites, falsely identified with a center-left doctrine. I’ve written about my two cities. I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which used to be a steel town—the town was a company town, and Bethlehem Steel was the company. The little steel strike of 1937 was broken with imported vigilantes in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. And then in 1941, the NLRB organized an election and the union won it by a huge margin, and Johnstown became a Democratic city. In 2016, Johnstown voted 2:1 for Trump. That was after the collapse of the steel industry, the virtual disappearance of the union, the inability of Democratic congressmen to do anything to sustain the life of the city. And then Princeton, New Jersey, where I’ve lived for forty years, and is one of the richest towns in America, voted almost 6:1 for Hillary Clinton. So, Johnstown 2:1 for Trump; Princeton 6:1 for Hillary Clinton. There is the sociology of the American left. The New Deal liberals abandoned the workers that were their base, and became the party of the educated middle class. And the abandoned workers of places like Johnstown turned to a populist demagogue who promised to give them back the old America.
Shenk: What role has the university played in this process?
Walzer: The university was in the 1960s and early ’70s the home of a left that was in its origins beautiful, and in its ending disastrous. I’ve often told the story of our antiwar movement in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We formed the Neighborhood Committee on Vietnam, which was, essentially, a Harvard project. Almost all of our workers, who were going house to house throughout the city, were students, exempt from the draft, trying to talk to families, many of whom had kids in Vietnam. We had, I still think, the right political position, but the campaign was a sad failure. In our small way, we helped to create the so-called Reagan Democrats.
Shenk: Who later become the Trump Republicans. I wonder, then, when you look at the university, do you think that American academia fits the liberal ideal you describe in the book?
Walzer: Well, I haven’t been at a university since 1980, but I have watched and listened to things going on and there are several different and contradictory trends in the universities I know best. There is growing corporatism and an expanding administration, which is mostly interested in the business of education, and not in the character of education. There is the creation of an academic proletariat: the decreasing number of tenure positions and positions that have tenure as a possibility; the increasing number of people working at universities who are working part-time, filling in on temporary jobs, often without benefits or without the full range of benefits, often with two jobs. I saw the very beginning of that process at Harvard in the late 1970s. All that is disastrous for academic life. At the same time, there is growing political activity on campuses, most visibly left activity, but much of it unrestrained by any kind of adult political movement or party. I am a member of a group of liberal and left professors who work on issues relating to Israel and the BDS movement. We are trying to convince the Jewish establishment that the only way to defend Israel on campuses is from a left critical position, and that the way they’re doing it is doomed to failure. And we are trying to convince the leftist students—whose politics is increasingly illiberal—that they should be supporting liberal democrats and liberal nationalists in both Israel and Palestine and working for one or another version of co-existence. My own encounters with the campus left have generally not been encouraging.
Shenk: This raises a question of what we could describe as comradely criticism. In the book, you say that it’s important to avoid rancorous responses to comrades who disagree. You talk about the case of Dissent during the Iraq war years when there was a call to drive out editorial board members who had supported the war. Even though you opposed American intervention, you felt that it was going too far to demand that people who disagreed with you get out altogether. But you’ve also never shied away from picking fights on the left. How have you tried to balance, on the one hand, this aversion to sectarianism with your own willingness to kick the hornet’s nest?
Walzer: It has to be an ongoing discussion. Any liberal left movement is going to have red lines. I remember the crucial Dissent red line was that we would not publish a defense of Stalinism. And yet we published Isaac Deutscher, but only with very, very strong responses so that any reader of Dissent knew what the magazine stood for. I tried to do that during the Iraq war; we published a symposium on whether to go to war in the winter of 2003 with eight comments—six of them opposed going to war, and two of them favored it. I thought that made clear the position of the magazine, while, at the same time, acknowledging an internal disagreement. And I was very upset when some people wanted to get rid of the two. So, yes, in our magazine or in our movement, it’s important to have a political position, which includes disagreement, up to some red lines, beyond which we wouldn’t agree to include people living, so to speak, on the other side. And then you have to argue about the red lines. You not only argue inside the boundaries, but you argue about the boundary.
Shenk: We’ve already talked about the postwar United States as going through a social democratic moment, or at least a moment when liberalism was infused with social democratic characteristics. You say that version of liberalism has given way to the neoliberal Democratic Party today. In the book, you also describe about being at the White House lawn for the Oslo Accords in 1993, this moment of hope Israel and Palestine. And you discuss marching in favor of the EU in the UK during the Brexit referendum. In each of these cases, there’s a period of optimism followed by a long falling away until you get to the present. Do you think there’s a reason why these moments are so fleeting?
Walzer: It’s wrong to ask an old man, because we sit around talking about the good old days, and bemoaning everything that is going on today.
Shenk: But it’s the frustration with where we are today that’s driving many of those young voices on the left you might be frustrated with—they’re nostalgic for a time that they haven’t even experienced. It’s the anger that drives them to more radical politics today. We can talk about whether that anger is counterproductive—I think it often is—but you can’t deal with it unless you first understand where it’s coming from.
Walzer: We are, at this moment, experiencing one defeat after another—with occasional victories, like a very close election in Brazil. I actually got phone calls and emails celebrating that victory, because it was so rare. And it was something to drink to and congratulate the people of Brazil.
Shenk: But on broader social and cultural issues—gay rights, women’s rights, racial equality—it’s not a story of defeat across the board; it’s a much more jagged narrative than straight decline. It’s just that there are also some big defeats for a certain type of liberalism along the way.
Walzer: The defeats have been very, very big, and some of them extending over a long period of time, like the decline in union membership. We have to ask why the victories that you describe for civil rights have gone along with growing social and economic inequality. The glory days of social democracy now seem pretty long in the past, although we are still, more or less successfully in Western Europe and even here, defending many of the achievements of social democracy. But any idea of moving toward a more egalitarian society—there are a lot of people who have simply conceded that loss. And yet I’ve continued to believe, and I think this has to be the sustaining belief on the left, that a majority of people would support something very much like the old social democratic program, renewed. If somehow we were able to find a way to present that program to populations here and in Europe, and to ask them to say yes or no, we would have, I think, an avalanche of yeses. Maybe that’s naïve. But I think the defeats, in part, are the fault of the left’s surrender to neoliberalism. And victory, or a series of victories, is not impossible. I don’t like the sense of anger, frustration, that comes from a belief that, somehow, the world has turned against us and we have to strike out at “elitists” in power. That’s the populist position. I think we have to try to sustain a different version of opposition, a version that manages to present a picture of a much, much less unequal society.
Shenk: I’m with you on the need to hold onto hope. But there’s an alternative decision that you gesture to in the book. You include a joke, which you borrow from Irving Howe, who was borrowing an old Jewish joke about endings: “In an East European shtetl, a man was chosen to sit outside the entrance to the town, and watch for the Messiah, so that inhabitants would have some warning about this long wind a-coming. A friend asked him, what kind of job is that? It doesn’t pay very well, he answered, but it is steady work.” You write that liberal socialism is steady work, which suggests that even if we’re not going to see something like socialism in our lifetimes, the struggle itself makes it worthy. But how do you make that argument to people who are demanding transformation now, and who are being confronted with a world that’s failing to live up to some seemingly reasonable expectations?
Walzer: That’s been the problem of the near-left forever. We offer a program of—I don’t want to call it gradual change, because if you think of something like Clement Attlee’s victory in 1945 and the establishment of the English welfare state, that wasn’t gradualism.
Shenk: It transformed so much of everyday life.
Walzer: Yes. And we have to look for moments of that kind. It was transformative, but it wasn’t the coming of the Messiah, it wasn’t the creation of a socialist egalitarian society. It was the creation of a far, far better society than what had existed just a moment before. And I’ve tried to understand that sort of thing with local examples. As I told you, I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The union came in 1941. We arrived in ’44. And I don’t think people understand what the victory of the union meant in a place like Johnstown. Suddenly, the steel workers had money. It’s quite simple. They became consumers. And the civil service of the city became civil to these people to whom they’d never been civil before. The whole feeling of life in the city changed. And those kinds of victories, we need to talk about them, describe them, relive them, because those kind of victories are still possible.
Michael Walzer is editor emeritus of Dissent.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.