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Vol. 14, No. 4, 2015
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michael walzer's

reviewed by


Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

"Revolutions devour their own children." The line is usually attributed to the German playwright Georg Büchner, although it has been repeated so often that authorship hardly matters. It is also incorrect; it ought to tell us that revolutions chew up the parents who launch them. In The Paradox of Liberation, a fascinating excursion into the ironies of political action, the political philosopher Michael Walzer adds a new twist: Secular revolutions unwittingly give rise to religious zealotry.

Looking 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 forward?

Walzer 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 die out.

Instead, 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 unleashed it.

States 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.

The 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.

Islam 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.

The 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.

Algeria’s 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.

This 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.



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