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books The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective

In this new book, writes reviewer Clemens, author Walzer "muses on the evolution of the word liberal, from indicating a fixed ideology to signifying a ‘universal’ set of values that can be attached to a diverse array of political projects."

The Struggle for a Decent Politics
On "Liberal" as an Adjective

Michael Walzer
Yale University Press
ISBN: 9780300267235

Michael Walzer has been engaged in politics for decades; early on as an activist, later as a political theorist and public intellectual. The vision behind his lifelong efforts is well captured by the title of his latest book: The Struggle for a Decent Politics. While it is not a memoir, it surely is his most personal book, and as Walzer, now in his late 80s, writes, it may well be his last.

For a little over 150 pages, Walzer revisits nearly all the topics he has been engaged with as a political theorist and public intellectual. For instance, his examination of just and unjust wars is reflected in a chapter devoted to ‘Liberal Nationalists and Internationalists’. In a chapter titled ‘Liberal Communitarians’, he once more claims a middle ground in the academic liberalism vs communitarianism debate. And in ‘Liberal Professors and Intellectuals’, Walzer takes up the theme of social criticism.

A new idea holds those reflections together: being a liberal today no longer means championing liberalism (as a political ideology among other ideologies, such as socialism or conservatism). Instead, those that see themselves and are identified by others as liberals today share a set of moral convictions and sensibilities that lets them approach politics in a particular way. What Walzer sets out to explore is how this liberal ethos may shape political projects that run under nouns such as nationalism, feminism, or democracy. His decoupling of liberal as a verb from liberalism as a noun allows him to make a series of internal differentiations:

‘Like all adjectives, ‘liberal’ modifies and complicates the nouns it precedes; it has an effect that is sometimes constraining, sometimes enlivening, sometimes transforming. It determines not who we are but how we are who we are – how we enact our political commitments’ (5).

How exactly does ‘liberal’ affect the nouns it precedes? While Walzer’s point is that ‘liberal’ nowadays refers to a set of moral values and sensibilities that have become universal (‘They must be, since they are visibly under assault these days around the world’ (5)), those values nonetheless clearly derive from currents within the liberal tradition. Thus:

‘For all the nouns to which the adjective applies, it brings its various liberal qualifications: the constraint of political power; the defence of individual rights; the pluralism of parties, religions, and nations; the openness of civil society; the right of opposition and disagreement; the accommodation of difference; the welcome of strangers. It brings generosity of spirit together with scepticism and irony’ (150).

What Walzer seems to say is that liberalism has come to an end as a fixed political ideology but that, in the process, a set of its elements have been released and turned into universal norms and sentiments, which can now be combined with all sorts of politically more substantial projects. Liberal as an ‘adjective can’t stand by itself as it is commonly made to do (by adding the ‘ism’)’; Liberalism as a political ideology no longer has the power to inspire political movements, ‘but the nouns […] will never be what they should be without the adjective liberal’ (5). Interesting in this context is the fact, not mentioned by Walzer, that before ‘liberalism’ as a noun came into use around 1810, people already used the adjective ‘liberal’ in a non-political sense, meaning, roughly, ‘generous.’

The idea that liberalism cannot stand alone is not new. One version of this argument is made by Eli Zaretsky, who argues in Why America Needs a Left that ‘Without a left, liberalism becomes spineless and vapid’. Zaretsky goes on to write that ‘without liberalism, the left becomes sectarian, authoritarian, and marginal.’ This second quote seems to imply an argument quite close to Walzer’s. But as the title of the book suggests, Zaretsky’s main point is that liberalism needs a left to constantly correct it, whereas Walzer sees liberalism in the role of restricting and bending politically more substantial ideologies, such as socialism.

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Walzer’s argument also relates to and deviates from the often-made observation that liberalism has become the dominant paradigm in fields where professional reasoning about politics takes place, such as political theory or International Relations. The dominance of liberalism in those fields is regularly interpreted as liberalism’s unique ability to incorporate critique. One can ask, though, what is left of liberalism after it has incorporated, for instance, socialist, feminist, and communitarian arguments? Walzer provides an original answer by simply turning things around. The question is not what has remained of liberalism after taking in, for instance, feminist arguments; it is how liberal socialism, liberal nationalism, or liberal feminism differ from the doctrines missing the adjective.

Liberal socialists, for instance, (like all socialists) are committed to a struggle for equality, and, compared to their liberal-democratic comrades, they put a stronger emphasis on the need for structural change. Yet, liberal socialists believe that the progress they envision has to be achieved by democratic means, by building a broad societal consensus, rather than (as some other socialists have it) by using a ‘knowing vanguard’ to push through what is ‘objectively’ in people’s interest. Because, as Walzer puts it in the elegant and lively prose he is known for, ‘Two steps forward, one step back is better than three steps forward over the bodies of our opponents’ (39).

Walzer’s positions have remained exceptionally stable over the years. While he has changed his mind here and there a little and slightly revised this or that argument, he is not among those whose oeuvres are characterised by fundamental revisions. There are no separate phases, no ‘late Walzer’ to be distinguished from an ‘early’ one.

One reason for this is that Walzer is no system builder; there is no grand theory that needs constant reconstruction in reaction to criticism or new empirical evidence. With concerned amazement, Walzer has noted that many who contribute to Just War Theory today are primarily concerned with other theorists’ arguments rather than with the actual phenomena: concrete wars, just or otherwise. In contrast, his writings are characterised by the engagement with concrete phenomena; in each case, he develops specific normative arguments for how ‘we’ (fellow citizens, for instance) should think about or address the problems we face.

Another reason for the overall coherence of Walzer’s positions can be sought in his personality. He is a progressive through socialisation but a moderate by nature. His demons, whoever they are, do not manage to push him back and forth between extreme positions. Walzer’s writings and talks show that he is constantly weighing the arguments, always warning against putting one value, one idea, above all others. Thus, he holds that a ‘single-minded demand for American disengagement everywhere can’t be the right answer’ (43). This qualifying approach is also reflected in his style, especially in his beloved insertions in brackets, such as ‘everyone (almost everyone) …’ (55).

Given his many excellent books, The Struggle for a Decent Politics may not be Walzer’s best. However, no other book contains more of Walzer as a person, with many points illustrated using first-hand stories, while simultaneously revealing his positions towards almost all of the many political (theory) problems he has been concerned with. It, therefore, provides a superb testimony to a lifelong struggle for a decent politics.


Mario Clemens is currently conducting a PhD in Political Theory at Erfurt University, Germany.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.