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Michael Walzer’s Liberalism of Gratitude

Don’t let a fixation on political endings prevent you from living a good, decent life in the present, the liberal socialist argues.
March 16, 2023
Michael Walzer’s Liberalism of Gratitude
People relax under an orange smoke-filled sky at Dolores Park in San Francisco, California on September 9, 2020. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small / AFP) (Photo by BRITTANY HOSEA-SMALL/AFP via Getty Images)

Conservative critics of free market capitalism have lately been feeling their oats. Free markets, they argue, weaken every barrier to moving labor and goods efficiently. If your attachment to church makes you shun work on Sunday, free market capitalism says that it has to be weakened. If your attachment to home makes you balk at taking your skills where they’re needed, it has to be weakened. If your attachment to tradition makes you cling to inefficient practices, it has to be weakened. Such attachments may sustain the spirit, but since they’re bad for business, societies organized around free markets seek to “liberate” us from them. In such societies, conservative critics say with Karl Marx, “all that is solid melts into air.” But where Marx saw fertile ground for revolution, they see a spiritual desert. In exchange for spiritual nourishment, the conservative political theorist Patrick Deneen has argued, free market liberalism offers “the liberty to buy every imaginable consumer good,” which only feeds our “unfulfillable cravings.”

Such conservatives have left it to a democratic socialist like Michael Walzer to put the goodness back into consumer goods. At one point in his latest book, The Struggle for a Decent Politics, Walzer, a distinguished political theorist and left-wing intellectual, recalls stories his father, a jewelry store manager, told him about the fruits of unionization, “steelworker families coming in to buy a necklace or bracelet for a sixteen-year-old daughter.” They also purchased washing machines. “They were proud shoppers” whose “desire for beautiful things” and an easier home life had found incomplete but real fulfillment.

Walzer’s defense of shopping isn’t directed against conservatives. It occurs in a chapter that explores how the term “liberal” modifies the term “socialist”—among a series of chapters discussing the various ways that adjective is applied: liberal democrats, liberal nationalists, liberal Jews, and so on. Walzer is out to explain and defend liberalism not as an “encompassing ideology” with progressive and libertarian variants but as a way that we “enact our ideological commitments,” whatever they are. Walzer is a socialist because he opposes “capitalist hierarchy.” Money should be able to buy washing machines but not legal impunity or political power. He is a liberal socialist because he is unwilling to countenance the repression required to suppress the desires that foster inequality—desires that are, like the desire for beautiful things, respectable.

Walzer is also committed to communitarianism, an ideology that is “radically critical of a society of self-regarding individuals.” He is a liberal communitarian because he is unwilling to dismiss a person’s right to be “at times of [his] choosing, invisible to [his] neighbors.” Citizens should be able to tend to their “private happiness—to watch a baseball game, go to the movies, play with their children, work in the garden, make love, or just sit with friends, drink coffee, and talk.” Ideology isn’t everything.

Here, liberal means “not totalizing.” That’s partly because liberals seek to “reduce the heat” and “lower the stakes of political conflict.” A politics from which there is no respite and that invades every aspect of our lives is too hot. And it’s partly because liberals recognize that “everybody is radically imperfect,” not to be trusted with the power to try for utopia, which, at any rate, can’t be had. Walzer, a longtime contributor to and editor of Dissent magazine, recalls that it came into being “at a time when many leftists were still defending the Soviet regime, denying its crimes, or apologizing in the name of historical necessity.” When imperfect human beings are persuaded that they fight for a righteous cause, that victory is just around the corner, and that victory will bring new and permanent age of justice, they contemplate repressive and cruel measures. Walzer, following the political theorist Judith Shklar, takes cruelty to be first “among the sins [liberals] try to avoid.” Liberal socialists, as well as liberal democrats, are “hostile to actual endings,” by which Walzer means that there is no outcome so tantalizing and sure as to justify the sacrifice of a generation, or even the internment of dissidents.

It is an understatement to say that our politics right now envisions actual endings, though dystopia figures more prominently than utopia. In a recent speech at CPAC, former President Trump invited his followers to take part in a “final battle,” the outcome of which will determine whether the country is “lost forever.” There is nothing idiosyncratic about this apocalyptic appeal—it echoes one made in 2016, when Michael Anton argued that supporting then-candidate Trump was akin to the passengers on Flight 93 rushing the cockpit, a rational choice where the other choice was certain “doom.” The election of 2016 was, Anton wrote, the “final test.” Or was it the election of 2020?

But Trump’s enemies, too prone to think that the next Republican victory will replace our democracy with fascism, don’t win Walzer’s unqualified approval, either. For example, although Walzer views the “Lock her up!” chants of 2016 as shocking, he also thinks that calls to jail Trump are misguided, “even after the events of January 6, 2021.” One cannot afford to be doctrinaire, even about the sound principle that everyone is subject to the law. If losing an election means winding up in prison, we can expect more days like January 6th. Liberal conservatives, among whom Walzer counts “some tough Never Trumpers,” have been warned.

As a man of the left in the United States, Walzer is used to being in a permanent political minority and understands the temptation to dig in and dream of gaining the power, as Sohrab Ahmari once put it, “to enforce our order and our orthodoxy.” Smaller victories can seem meaningless if the culture seems stacked against you. To this kind of desperate and illiberal dream, Walzer opposes the idea of “steady work.” Referring again to the hostility of liberal socialists to an imagined final victory or defeat, Walzer says,

the world around us changes; new inequalities emerge. . . ; we never stop arguing . . . ; the messiah doesn’t come; the revolution is postponed. Or we live through a revolution that we can’t control and end up with a new fight against dictatorship and terror. Socialism is steady work.

Such work, Walzer observes, is safest and easiest in societies governed by liberals, whose distaste for totalizing encourages a lively civil society. Walzer recounts a venture he was involved with during the 1970s to “bring philosophy to bear on current political and social issues.” His associates were “mostly liberals and leftists,” but they “never had to register with the authorities” and “no government agency invited any of [them] to report on each other.” They launched a magazine, found people to fund it, and looked “for readers in competition with a very large number of other academic and political magazines.”

In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, groups like this had a rather different experience. The “authorities took an interest.” There “were often informers in their midst,” and “the meetings were dangerous.” To be sure, American authorities have sometimes taken an interest in dissident groups. Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover each play a role in The Struggle for a Decent Politics. All the more reason to appreciate and take advantage of the uncommon degree to which dissent and discussion are valued in societies shaped by liberals. At times, this openness seems lost on conservative culture warriors who, although they think that relatively small groups of college professors have a profound influence on American life, imagine themselves powerless, absent state anti-woke intervention, to win an argument. They recklessly speak of totalitarianism, as if they are experiencing something like it. One is tempted to call this—although Walzer doesn’t—ingratitude.

In contrast, although being liberal doesn’t “preclude anger and a fierce realism,” The Struggle for a Decent Politics is suffused with gratitude. The habits of liberals—open-mindedness, tolerance, living with ambiguity, skepticism—are partly defensive. Dogmatism threatens to heat politics up. But they also encourage a pluralism that has its glories, for which one can be thankful. In a chapter on nationalism, Walzer writes about Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, a Zionist and advocate for the revival of Hebrew. Ben-Yehudah was a “language zealot” but also a liberal nationalist who “admired the beauty of other national languages and wrote about the ‘glorious variety and multi-colored splendor’ of a world of nations.” There is something splendid about pluralism, not only on the international scene but within liberal nations, which have proven “remarkably hospitable to people of every religious and ideological sort.”

In a chapter on liberal Jews, Walzer notes a similar, if not quite liberal, strain, in Jewish thought, which he has attempted to capture as co-editor of The Jewish Political Tradition, a projected four-volume work “dealing with political life and thought from the Bible, the Talmud, and rabbinic responsa up to and including texts from the modern Diaspora.” It is significant, Walzer thinks, that “the rabbis disagreed vigorously among themselves and that the editors of the Talmud decided to record the disagreements and preserve the dissenting legal opinions.” And it is a feature, rather than a bug, of the Jewish tradition that lapsed Jews remain Jews. Walzer, the liberal socialist, and his co-editors are, “in [their] own way, traditional Jews, committed to the continuity of Jewish history and to the arguments that are an essential part of it.” This, too, appears to be something for which Walzer is grateful.

Perhaps this gratitude will sit uneasily with some of Walzer’s socialist comrades and with conservatives who suppose it self-indulgent to fiddle with curiosity and beauty while the world burns. They would do well to consider Walzer’s appeal to the original, ancient meaning of liberalism, according to which a liberal had “gentle manners and an inquiring mind.” This can’t be quite our meaning, because we aren’t people of leisure and we think, more than the ancients seemed to, that there is a great deal we can do to relieve suffering and extend the blessings of freedom to people once thought unworthy of it. But the liberal’s hostility to endings has to mean that the private good life cannot be put off to some future date when justice is fully achieved. It isn’t indulgent to wish to say—to borrow one of Walzer’s epigraphs, from the poet Yehuda Amichai,

Even though I know I’ll die
And even though I know the Messiah won’t come,
I feel good.

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks, a professor of politics at Ursinus College, is the author of Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education. Twitter: @marksjo1.