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.