at what began in Israel, India, and (to a lesser extent) Algeria
in the middle of the 20th century, Walzer does not ask, "What
is to be done?," Lenin’s famous question, but "Why
did they do it?" David Ben-Gurion, Jawaharlal Nehru and
Ahmed Ben Bella may have believed that the anti-colonial movements
they led would help usher in a new society. Instead they prepared
the groundwork for clerical authority, unbending dogmatism and
second-class status for women. Had they known what would happen,
my best guess, and I believe Walzer’s as well, is that
they would have fought their struggles anyway, so compelling
were their nationalist causes. But history can be a cruel god.
"Why," Walzer asks, "have the leaders and militants
of secular liberation not been able to consolidate their achievement
and reproduce themselves in successive generations?" Indeed,
why were they replaced by those who look backward rather than
has always had a special interest in Israel, which, not surprisingly,
draws the bulk of his attention. Zionism is correctly understood
to be a response to the anti-Semitism of 19th- and 20th-century
Europe. But it was also a reaction to the religiosity that had
flourished among diasporic Jews. Early Zionists turned their
backs on the traditions, teachings and prayers that had sustained
Jewish life throughout the centuries. For them, the Bible was
a work of geography, not prophecy: It offered a map of the land
Jews once held and would, if they had their way, hold again.
It was because of that confident secularism that Ben-Gurion
extended special privileges — like military-draft exemptions
for women and yeshiva students studying full time — to
the ultra-Orthodox, convinced as he was that they would soon
as the recent electoral triumph of Benjamin Netanyahu portends,
the country may find itself shredding its democracy in favor
of piety; Netanyahu himself is secular, but he has typically
depended on parties associated with ultra-Orthodoxy to retain
power. "The return of the negated," as Walzer calls
that development, turns Zionism on its head. The Zionists tamed
the messianic element in religious Judaism; the ultra-Orthodox
in general, Walzer argues, are inherently secular, leading him
to believe that there are limits to what a religious counterrevolution
in Israel can achieve. But his own perceptive analysis of the
problems of secular Zionism suggests that right-wing religious
forces just might get what they wish. Secularists, he argues,
lack a thick sense of culture. They are, and for some time will
be, unable to provide the sense of belonging and "appeal
to history" that Orthodoxy possesses. They have lost whatever
hegemony they had. Time will tell what a rejuvenated Netanyahu
will demand, but almost none of the early Zionists, including
the militant but non-believing Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder
of the Israeli right wing, would likely recognize it.
movement for Indian independence faced the same problem in even
more intractable form. Like Ben-Gurion, Nehru never appreciated
the depth of traditional religion in the state he helped bring
into being. There it took two major forms: Hindu and Muslim.
With respect to taming the passions of the former, Nehru was
hampered by the fact that Mohandas Gandhi, the main instigator
of Indian liberation, was more receptive to Hinduism than the
early Zionists were to Judaism. The British, moreover, were
clearly colonialists, but, in their so-called civilizing mission,
they banned traditions like suttee, the ritualistic immolation
of a husband’s widow on his funeral pyre. It is a good
example of the paradox of liberation that the Hindu nationalists
who rose to prominence in the new state in the name of anti-colonialism
advocated a practice so oppressive to half their population.
was as much a challenge. Nehru did understand religious passion;
"his refusal to recognize the religious communities,"
Walzer points out, "wasn’t determined only by secular
blindness but by secular fear: He worried that recognizing them
would strengthen them." That was indeed a real fear, for
it was religious zeal, more than any other factor, that led
to the breakaway of those Indian provinces that formed Pakistan.
If I have any criticism of Walzer’s superb book, it is
his failure even to mention Pakistan. Here, it seems, was a
country born for reasons of religion that ultimately became,
at least among its leadership class, more secular, despite the
fundamentalist extremism that so often rules its streets. It
is a counterexample to that of the book.
anti-colonialists in Algeria were inspired by the writings of
Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born psychiatrist whose The Wretched
of the Earth had a powerful impact upon liberationists everywhere,
save, I suspect, Zionists. Fanon is the most secular of all
the figures in the book; to this revolutionary writer, Christianity
symbolized external oppression — rule from abroad —
and Islam the homegrown form of tyranny. Under his influence,
the early leaders of the FLN, the National Liberation Front,
which led the war against France, considered themselves socialists
and either ignored Islam or argued for, as a 1954 manifesto
put it, "an Algerian state, sovereign, democratic, and
social, within the framework of the principles of Islam."
Left-wing fervour, not religious revival, was the force that
separated Algeria from France.
early leaders were more authoritarian in temperament than either
Ben-Gurion or Nehru, and a flourishing democracy was unlikely.
Between the reluctance of the leadership to share power and
the subsequent militancy of the Islamic Salvation Front, the
religiously inspired opposition, compromise was impossible.
Algeria has gone through a series of political crises that defy
easy description: Political power is still dominated by the
military, while Muslim groups retain considerable influence,
even as they are split between radical and moderate factions.
For those reasons, I doubt that Algeria offers a particularly
appropriate example of Walzer’s main thesis. The FLN is
still one of the country’s leading political parties,
quite a different situation than in Israel, where the parties
that engaged in the formation of the state have all but disappeared.
short book, adopted from the Henry L. Stimson Lectures that
Walzer delivered at Yale University in 2013, can be read as
a summary of the themes that have preoccupied Walzer throughout
his career: exile and revolution, pluralism and diversity, just
and unjust wars, and connected criticism, such as the efforts
of individuals like the Hebrew prophets to point out the flaws
of societies whose fate intimately concerned them. With the
passing of John Rawls, Walzer can rightly be called America’s
greatest living political philosopher. To publish a book of
this scope and insight at any time would be a cause for celebration.
Seeing The Paradox of Liberation published as Walzer
turns 80 makes the tribute all the more special.