Being anywhere on the left has always been a minority position in American society, but Michael Walzer has typically been cheerful about his place on the margin. He defines himself as a “connected” social critic in the mold of Albert Camus, George Orwell, and his mentor, Irving Howe. By “connected,” Walzer means something different from the more French-inflected “engaged,” and the contrast he draws with “alienated” is explicit. Connected critics, Walzer maintains, argue from the edge, but not from the outside. They do not burn constitutions; they offer amendments. They speak in the idiom of their fellow citizens and remind them of the ideals they have failed to live up to. They write not out of anger but disappointed love.

For more than half a century, Walzer has lovingly shamed America in this fashion, most notably through his stewardship of Dissent magazine, which has incubated social-democratic political alternatives since the Cold War. Too young for the trials of McCarthyism and too old for the Vietnam draft, Walzer is the inheritor of a segment of the left that still prides itself on its midcentury blend of anticommunism and social democracy. In public, Walzer still gets chuckles from mainstream audiences when he says, with practiced weariness, that he “lives on the left” or mentions “the left, which is where I live,” as if he were confessing to some unfashionable zip code.

But view Walzer from any another angle, and he appears to be at home in the political center. He is one of the immortals at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton; he is the pinch-hitting social democrat for The New York Review of Books; he appears on Charlie Rose; he is read at West Point. These are not typically radical havens. In his work as a political theorist, Walzer’s most important writings orbit prominently inside the ever-expanding galaxy of communitarian provisos to John Rawls. He periodically inspects the exports of European theory—­Foucault, Negri, Zizek—and marks them “return to sender.” In his mode as a judger of wars, Walzer is often as impatient with the mechanical anti-imperialism of leftists—he prefers to put “imperialism” in quotation marks—as he is with the humanitarian hypocrisies of liberals.

In some sense, Walzer embraces this dual political character. He thinks that liberalism, without regular utopian injections, is doomed to abandon any commitment to social progress; but that without liberal limits, utopian aspirations threaten to bring about catastrophes worse than the ones they seek to mitigate. In other words, radicalism and liberalism need each other. This is hardly an original or clarifying political position, but Walzer has always displayed a certain distaste for the business of taking political positions, while at the same time taking them constantly. And so, when Walzer says that he “lives on the left,” it is not always clear what address he is giving.

The question is more urgent and interesting now that the flock has separated from the shepherd. It is hard to say just when Walzer went from being treated by his comrades as America’s leading social-­democratic thinker to an ever less gently tolerated avuncular presence. Many otherwise-sympathetic adherents of Walzer’s left-liberal blend like to whisper that much of his work amounts to a justification of Israeli policies. But this reductio ad Zionism satisfies a craving for coherence by positing a consistency in his thought that isn’t quite there. Certainly, the growing distance between Walzer and the left where he has lived is due to competing claims between social justice on the one hand, and communal solidarity on the other. In order to maintain its credentials, Dissent recently had little choice but to run a rebuttal to one of Walzer’s pieces in its own pages. That particular contretemps was about the relationship between the left and Islamism, but it runs much deeper. The acrimony of the exchange and the melancholy tone of Walzer’s response went beyond the pitch of a family quarrel. At its root, it is a conflict over the nature and autonomy of modern politics and its most extreme expression: revolution. For Walzer, any talk of revolution and its export necessarily includes a reckoning with the use and abuse of American power in the world.

* * *

Fear of revolution was the most primal instinct of American foreign policy in the decades in which Walzer came of age. In its attempt to stabilize a postwar world order it had largely designed, the United States used the Marshall Plan in part to stanch partisan revolutions ignited by the defeat of fascism in Europe, while preferring more violent means against the revolutions of developing nations, as well as those at home. By the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, the US government’s fear of revolution was already being treated as an intellectual failure by some the country’s leading thinkers. As early as 1954, Reinhold Niebuhr worried that the United States was already playing the game of “managing history,” as more Third World states appeared to subscribe to the Soviet promise than to American vagaries. Whereas the Soviet Union was equipped with a powerfully lucid philosophy of history that could explain the nation-state as a way station on the road to the universal brotherhood of socialist republics, American policy-makers could offer no such definitive vision beyond a hazy picture of a world of materially satisfied, politically liberal nation-states, connected through capital, with America at once the exception and the model. (Consider: when Harry Truman was tending cows and writing love letters to Bess, Stalin was composing “Marxism and the National Question.”) The problem was all the more severe since the United States still saw itself as a revolutionary power, which it hadn’t been since the 19th century. Now, in the postwar world order, it occupied an uncomfortable position as a conservative power linked with the vulnerable European empires, against which it still prided itself on being the first rebel.

By the 1960s, Hannah Arendt could go a step further and blame the American fear of revolution on what she took to be a failure of American propaganda. “The failure to incorporate the American Revolution into the revolutionary tradition has boomeranged upon the foreign policy of the United States,” she wrote, “which begins to pay an exorbitant price for world-wide ignorance and for native oblivion.” It was an ongoing embarrassment, argued Arendt in On Revolution, that Third World revolutionaries knew the texts of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions by heart, but appeared never to have heard of the American ones. (This was untrue: Ho Chi Minh, among many others, was well versed in the American Revolution and the US Constitution.) But Arendt was largely correct in her broader assessment that the Third World had privileged “social” revolution, premised on immediate social justice, over “political” revolution, premised on the legal protection of property and rights. The luck and genius of the American Revolution, as she freely interpreted it, was that it happened in a country with such limitless resources that it was not fired by resentment against social betters. There was poverty in colonial America, but Arendt could detect no misery. In contrast, she worried that Third World nationalists, by conceiving of their revolutions like the French revolutionaries, out of physical necessity and rage against elite hypocrisy, had opened the door to totalitarianism and violence. The result would be the same as what had befallen the Jacobins, when “necessity invaded the political realm, the only realm where men can truly be free.” Or, as Irving Kristol, building on Arendt’s argument, put it: “A successful revolution is best accomplished by a people who do not really want it at all, but find themselves reluctantly making it.”

But instead of proffering the American Revolution as a model for the emerging nations of the decolonizing world, American policy-makers in the 1950s and ’60s rolled out a more all-encompassing program: modernization theory. This was the self-flattering story that explained the labor of decolonization and global capitalist integration as a manageable and inevitable process: the entry of new nations into modernity itself. The theory was consecrated in Walt Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960), an inverted Leninist tract that neatly substituted a liberal end point for history in place of a communist one. By 1968, the leading historian of American liberalism, Louis Hartz, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and explained that the Third World revolutions were more akin to the birth pangs of Europe leaving the Middle Ages than either the French or American Revolution.

In the same year, a young American anthropologist named Clifford Geertz made a more bracing and characteristically ironic argument about the Third World: The new nations emerging from the European empires were faced with the problem that their collective energy was based on opposition to rule by foreign people of a different color, and that this energy would dissipate as soon as formal independence was achieved because all of the former divisions of tribe and class had only gained momentum. Geertz called this the “nationalist paradox,” and he identified two responses to it: the “essentialist” response, which sought to foster a neotraditional sense of common identity in the new nation; or, alternatively, the drive among the new nation’s elites to build up a modern state in mimicry of the colonial metropoles. The two impulses were not mutually exclusive, but for Geertz, as for Arendt, these solutions were momentary psychological balms passing themselves off as deep and lasting change. Their expectations of modernity were a recipe for political disenchantment.

* * *

Walzer’s most sustained grappling with the problem of revolution in the 1960s came in the form of his dissertation, which became his first book, The Revolution of the Saints. It was a more earnest inquiry into revolutionary politics than those of Arendt (his New York Intellectual elder), Hartz (his teacher), or Geertz (his friend and longtime colleague). Walzer wanted to understand the dynamics of the first modern revolution: the Puritan Revolution of 1642, in which King Charles I of England lost his head and the country’s first Republican government came briefly into being under Oliver Cromwell. At the time, this historiographical territory was thoroughly occupied by British Marxists, who, locked into the concept of “bourgeois revolution,” interpreted the revolution as the overdetermined result of a new ascendant class of small merchants and shopkeepers who could no longer operate effectively within the confines of the ancient regime.

This was not the full story, as Walzer saw it. The men who most contributed to the revolutionary impulse were also fierce Protestant believers who thought they were doing God’s work on earth. In a highly destabilized world of transition, caught between a fading “traditional” society and an emerging “modern” one, this class of Protestant proto-intellectuals was “marked off from their fellows by an extraordinary self-assurance and daring.” They responded to the pervasive sense of spiritual drift around them by forming a new formal, impersonal, ideological covenant that prized commitment to faith over the traditional loyalties to family, guild, and king. As Walzer pointed out in The Revolution of the Saints, they won the confidence of the general population with their “undeviating sense of purpose,” their rigid self-discipline, and their tireless drive toward purity.

But Walzer showed that in the course of their revolt against the old order, the Puritans not only stumbled into the new world of politics, but in so doing revealed what politics originally was: a new kind of earthly labor, to which “the chosen were required to commit themselves for long periods of time.” It was a world-view that abandoned the boom-and-bust paradigm that saw nations and peoples guided by divinely determined periods of rise and decline; instead, politics was a mortal enterprise devoted to cultivating and constantly reforming the beloved community. In other words, Walzer had gone in search of the origins of politics and found, already existing in the middle of the 17th century, a vanguard. In the English case, this vanguard had fallen by the wayside, and during the Restoration period that followed, many of its ideas and practices—the most decisive being overseas imperialism—were adopted, while the ideological dimension of their project subsided. Something like secular politics was left behind. This was the most beautiful aspect of the English for Walzer: Their vanguard was the brittle cocoon for the larvae that metamorphosed into modernity.

It is hard to avoid the impression that in The Revolution of the Saints the young Walzer was engaging in a favorite Marxist pastime of previous generations: posing counterfactuals about the Russian Revolution, in this case whether it might have succeeded in birthing a better society if only the Bolsheviks had gone the way of the English Puritans and either recognized their short-term purpose and gracefully exited the scene, or been forced out by the majority of the population. In 1979, in “A Theory of Revolution,” his last published essay in a Marxist journal, Walzer returned to this theme and argued that his favored outcome would have been a Thermidor, in which “the revolutionary class”—the majority of the oppressed people in society—“resists and replaces the vanguard and slowly, through the routines of its everyday life, creates a new society in its own image.” And what happens to the vanguard? They were to be reabsorbed “into the social roles occupied by their parents, that is, into professional and official roles without any special political significance.” For Walzer, the preferred outcome of the Russian Revolution would have been a freshly modernized Russian people reclaiming the power of the state through the soviets in 1920 or thereabouts, while Lenin and Bukharin returned to work as high-school principals.

* * *

At the time Walzer was writing The Revolution of the Saints, there were, of course, more pressing “transitional” societies in view than the Puritans and Bolsheviks. These were the peoples of the decolonizing world, who—faster than anyone had anticipated—were coming into their own as “new nations.” The excitement over this world development among both American liberals and leftists is difficult to overstate. Arendt found something to admire in the Cuban Revolution, as Geertz did in Nasser and Senator John F. Kennedy in the Algerian rebels. As Geertz argued in “What Was the Third World Revolution?”, the charismatic heroes of the Third World seemed to promise “a heady vision of radical nationalism, cold war neutrality, collective opposition to Western imperialism, and great-leap-forward material progress.” There was a brief, ambivalent moment in which many American liberals were willing to overlook the fact that few national-liberation movements were democratic, and that many were engaged in armed struggle.

“What happened to national liberation?” is the question that Walzer sets out to answer in his new book, in which he returns to his original calling of revolutionology. It is a question worth posing: What happened to the dreams of the secular anticolonial nationalists who forged the new states out of the European empires? A large number of these states were founded on state-socialist principles and contested American conceptions of “self-determination.” Yet look around the world today, Walzer says, and see how many of these states seem to have reverted back to ethnic and religious politics, led by cultural chauvinists. The lions of early decolonization—Nehru, Nasser, Ho Chi Minh—were replaced in the 1970s by a group of more parochial leaders: Indira Gandhi, Suharto, Lê Duan. Now many of them have been challenged or succeeded by religious chauvinists: the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, Yisrael Beiteinu in Israel. The “backward” practices and mores that the original anticolonial generation allegedly thought they were consigning to the past have returned, if anything, in more virulent strains.

Walzer examines three cases in detail: Algeria, India, and Israel (the one with which he is most familiar). The main thrust of his argument is that the anticolonial vanguard in each of these states made a critical error of judgment that became an impediment once the euphoria of independence subsided. They were too strenuous in their attempts to make “new men” out of their people, and rushed too fast without doing what Walzer has been doing in his many books on Judaism: critically engaging their own traditions in a search for radical openings still possible within or alongside tradition. “The early liberationists believed that their struggle had a singular and certain end,” Walzer writes. “But the critical engagement with religious beliefs and practices is liberating in a new way: now the end is open, radically uncertain—or, better, there are many different engagements and many different, always temporary, outcomes.” Instead of plunging headlong into some imitation of Soviet or American or West European modernity, the liberationists—­Nehru, Ben Bella, Weizmann—should have consulted more with the saddhus, imams, and rabbis.

* * *

Walzer has always been more inclined to psychologize than to historicize, and The Paradox of Liberation is no exception. But even here, the psychologizing of Third World national liberation is overly tidy. Walzer charges each anticolonial founding generation as guilty of wounding the traditional fabric of society; then, decades later, the traumatizing error returns to haunt future generations. He believes this is what happened in Algeria in 1992, when the original anticolonial founding party, the National Liberation Front, was unable to accept the likely victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in a general election, and ignited a decade of civil war.

The problem in this case, as in his others, is Walzer’s hydraulic view of history, summed up in his blithe phrase “then the backwardness came back.” In his view, the animating forces behind “religion” and “tradition” in the new states entered into the wilderness for a few decades, never much registering the impact of global forces, until they suddenly returned in their societies in magnified form, ready to take advantage and control of the democracies they had only a small part in creating, except as a storehouse of anticolonialist sentiments. This picture is further distorted by Walzer’s inattention to two issues: the more concerted efforts on the part of the Third World, once it began to suspect that “national liberation” was a chimera in an age of global capitalism, to counter or reform global capitalism through institutions such as the New International Economic Order; and the missed global political opportunities, as in the oil crisis of the 1970s, which were squandered when the Arab members of OPEC decided to funnel their profits back into Western financial markets instead of more radical investments. By peering at national stories only through national lenses, Walzer glides over this thwarted Third World project, the failure of which sapped local support for national liberation and replenished hopes for more religiously grounded alternatives.

But perhaps the most surprising omission in The Paradox of National Liberation is its lack of puzzlement over how antique the phrase “national liberation” now sounds to our ears. No one talks much today about the idea that Walzer is trying to rescue—and for several reasons. One is that the predominant understanding of national liberation in the period of decolonization was much closer to the Soviet definition than to Walzer’s: It was a historical process that entailed an immediate break from colonial rule. But Walzer means something more by “liberation” than simple formal independence. He means the perpetually renewable liberation of the nation and the people, the never-ending process of remaking themselves as citizens. Arendt, too, was preoccupied with this problem in On Revolution, in which she returned to Jefferson’s meditations on the same subject. How, she asked, once the revolution is completed, does one keep its spirit alive? For Arendt, who was fixated on the Hungarian councils that sprang up in revolt against the Soviet invasion of 1956—at least until they became tainted by anti-Semitism—the answer was some kind of small-scale political commune where the exercise of political talents could be constantly refined and issues worked out in fully civic forums.

But the main reason for the obsolescence of national liberation as a rallying cry has to do with nationalism’s loss of appeal among leftists. Many on the left who cheered the “war for national liberation” in Vietnam turned against the new state when it began persecuting those who became the “boat people.” Soon, national liberation became a tarnished ideal. By the 1990s, separatist groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party had dialed back the use of “national liberation” in their slogans and demands; it suddenly seemed an outdated justification for a splinter state when there was more resonant local language available. The fortunes of national liberation were already dimmed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: The Soviets were always more comfortable with the language of national liberation than the Americans, but here, for many on the left, was a socialist state so outrageously out of control that large numbers of leftists decided that the more just cause was to back the indigenous Muslim forces and fight the Soviets and their state-socialist puppets. The Vietnamese boat people and the mujahideen were only two signs of the global trend that gradually led a significant sector of the left to substitute the ideal of human rights for national liberation. But Walzer appears uninterested in this story.

* * *

If there is one thing that Walzer has now come out against strongly, it is what he sees as the pusillanimous attitude toward radical Islam in his corner of the left. “I frequently come across leftists who are more concerned with avoiding accusations of Islamophobia than they are with condemning Islamist zealotry,” he wrote recently in Dissent. “The Islamic revival is a kind of testing moment for the left.… Some of us are trying to meet the test; many of us are actively failing it.” Those failing it, according to Walzer, are the leftists who “are so irrationally afraid of an irrational fear of Islam that they haven’t been able to consider the very good reasons for fearing Islamist zealots—and so they have difficulty explaining what’s going on in the world.” Walzer has lately discovered the Internet, it seems, and he doesn’t like what he’s found there: not enough worrying about the politics of contemporary religion or about radical Islamist politics. But is insufficient condemnation of such universally despised organizations as the Islamic State really the main problem haunting the left today? The problem is not that Walzer wants US air strikes to stop massacres by ISIS, but that he calls for them in a frame of mind in which America is perpetually faced with upstart Hitlers. Immediate moral and psychological concerns trump any wider moral consideration, so there is never any need to bother with the question of why it is always the United States that gets to cast itself as a savior, while the world’s victims go on being victims.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Walzer’s deeper problem with the left today has to do with its willingness to lend a charitable interpretation to any anticapitalist and anti-imperialist force that happens to be operating in the world, no matter its origins. The newfound affection for Pope Francis among a portion of the left is only the most superficial sign of this. More pervasive is a general sense that religion is one of the storehouses in modernity with a supply of anticapitalist concepts and practices. Not that radical philosophers have been particularly adept at identifying these: In 1978, Michel Foucault notoriously turned in his wings as an academic for a year and tried his hand as a journalist in Tehran, then on the cusp of revolution against the shah. “It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems,” wrote Foucault of Khomeini’s rising tide, “the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane.” He was surprised to find the doctor from Tehran, the provincial mullah, the postal worker, and the female student in a chador all forming a “perfectly unified collective will” against the shah. In rather Walzerian fashion, Foucault decided that they were wrestling with their own tradition to find a new way forward. “Religion for them,” he wrote of the Iranians, “was like a promise and guarantee of finding something that would radically change their subjectivity.” Marx needed to be revised: “Islam, in the year 1978, was not the opium of the people precisely because it was the spirit of a world without spirit.”

Walzer never quite tells us how to identify a true insurrection from a false one, but like Foucault he trusts his instinct for detecting authenticity. The stakes of revolutionology are high today, when the lack of discrimination between types of revolution has allowed the word to be applied everywhere from Syria to Libya. The confusion of the left over the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent rule in Egypt is another case in point: It now seems to have been merely an interregnum, engineered to fail (at least in part) by an Egyptian military class that needed to update and refine its dominance after the three sclerotic decades of Mubarak’s rule. But the tentative leftist approval for the Brotherhood would likely have been misplaced even if the latter had had a freer hand. One might argue, with Perry Anderson, that the decolonizing world might have been better off if, instead of superficially interrogating its own traditions and religions, the anticolonial vanguard had vitiated them completely. More appealing was Foucault’s old Marxist antagonist, Maxime Rodinson, author of Islam and Capitalism (1966), who argued that the likelihood of a Muslim socialism was small, given that the imprecision on economic matters in Islam’s sacred writing so often played to the advantage of reactionary elites, with their close ties to ministers and interpreters of religion. Yet for Rodinson, Islam was also simply the social atmosphere in which anything happened in the Muslim world—for good or ill—much as Christianity, until perhaps recently, was in Europe. Therefore, to treat it as an insurmountable obstacle to progress, or to be incurious about its possible transformations, was a dangerous form of blindness.

The revolutions of our own time offer neither national liberation nor national renewal. The official US fear of social revolution can, for the time being, be retired: From Kiev to Cairo and beyond, with only a few exceptions, we live in a time of competitive elitisms and pseudo-political revolutions. Each one promises, with ever more effective media, to restore some integral basis for political rights and liberties—to finally and truly represent the people—but turns out to be the messy means for replacing one elite with another. Why and how this has happened is not a question that interests Walzer. Drawing historically obtuse parallels between Christian crusaders in the Middle Ages and the jihadist international of today, as Walzer has made his latest habit, is less than helpful. One hopes for more illuminating offerings from one of the last torchbearers of the “decent” left.

Editor’s note: This article was amended on December 28. It originally included an idea that should have been attributed to Clifford Gertz and two phrases that should have been attributed to Michael Walzer’s The Revolution of the Saints. These errors have been corrected; we regret the oversight.