The Religious Specter Haunting Revolution

Micha Bar Am/Magnum Photos
David Ben-Gurion at Kibbutz Sde Boker, in the Negev desert, 1966

Michael Walzer turned eighty this year, as vital, productive, and intellectually alive as ever. After twenty-eight books, hundreds of articles, decades of teaching at Princeton and Harvard, editing Dissent as a nonsectarian voice of the democratic left, his work remains an essential reference point in academic and public discussion of the most pressing ethical dilemmas in international politics.

You can’t teach a class about just war and the ethics of intervention without using his Just and Unjust Wars (1977); you will not think clearly about whether justice is local and national or universal and cosmopolitan unless you have read his Spheres of Justice (1983); you can’t understand the vexed relationship between religion and politics without pondering The Revolution of the Saints (1965). His work may range widely, but his allegiances have remained stubbornly persistent. He has never wavered in his commitments to a secular, pluralist “democratic left,” to an Israel that makes peace with the Palestinians, and to a social theory that is practical, focused on issues, and rooted in specific historical cases and situations. “I follow the maxim about political life,” he has said, “that nothing is the same as anything else.”

He’s also said, with disarming but false modesty, that “I have always had difficulty sustaining an abstract argument for more than a few sentences.” In fact, his work manages to combine extended abstraction with masterful use of comparative examples. He shies away when called a public intellectual, but he is a genuinely democratic thinker, with a true teacher’s vocation for developing complex and nuanced arguments that he takes care to make as clear as he can. A book by Walzer will always be a pleasure to read, even when you find yourself shaking your head in disagreement.

His latest project, first delivered as lectures at Yale, takes him back to preoccupations that have defined his work for fifty years: why the democratic left condescends to religious conviction; why secular revolutions beget religious counterrevolutions; why in Israel, David Ben-Gurion’s founding vision of a secular civic state, granting equality to Jews and Palestinians alike, is now in retreat before an increasingly intolerant and exclusionist political culture.

While Israel remains the central focus of The Paradox of Liberation, Walzer has made a major contribution to the question of what’s happening there simply by arguing that Israel may not be so special after all: the same kinds of problems may be occurring in other states created by national liberation movements. He compares what happened to Ben-Gurion’s vision with what befell Jawaharlal Nehru’s in India and Ahmed Ben Bella’s in Algeria.

In all three cases, he asks, why did secular liberation movements fall prey, within a generation, to a religious counterrevolution? What does this tell us, he asks in turn, about Zionism, the Indian Congress Party,…

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