In my old age, I try to argue more quietly, though I still believe that sharp disagreement is a sign of political seriousness. What engaged citizens think and say matters; we should aim to get it right and to defeat those who get it wrong. I understand the very limited impact of what I write, but I continue to believe that the stakes are high.
– Michael Walzer (2018)
These thoughts, from the preface of A Foreign Policy for the Left
(Yale University Press, 2018), reflect the understated wisdom of a highly regarded 85-year old political theorist, Michael Walzer. His many books include the influential Just and Unjust Wars
, and others mentioned in this interview including: Thick and Thin – Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, Spheres of Justice – A Defense of Pluralism and Equality
, and Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War and Citizenship
– the last one being published in 1970 at the height of the divisive Vietnam War era when Walzer was teaching at Harvard.
Much of the material for Michael’s books derives from his long affiliation with Dissent
magazine – he apprenticed as a young leftist partisan under the prolific Irving Howe whose writing, social role and politics helped shape the young Walzer. Evidence of Michael’s current and ongoing political engagement, as well as the clarity of his thought and seriousness of his message can be seen here: ‘A Note on Racial Capitalism’ from Dissent
in July 2020. In his note Michael references K. Sabeel Rahman’s Dissent
article ‘Dismantle Racial Capitalism’ in his first paragraph; a month later two scholars write ‘A Reply to Michael Walzer’ from which comes: ‘A Reply to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò and Liam Kofi Bright’.
Professor Walzer published his first Dissent
article in 1956 which provides some timeline context for one of the first questions in this interview about whether the Hiss-Chambers testimonies before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (1948) might represent the opening confrontation of our polarizing culture wars. As you will hear, Michael thinks it could date back further; and shares a few thoughts on teaching at Harvard in the sixties, and pivotal moments in his career as a young leftist partisan. He comments about scholars like Rawls, Nozick and Geertz; and offers opinions related to our current polarization including a recent Rolling Stone
article, the origins of resentment, engaged citizenship and voting, 9/11 and its aftermath, justice, ‘complex equality’, ‘formative’ books and a poet.
An overview of Michael’s life and work, Justice is Steady Work – A Conversation on Political Theory
(Polity Press 2020) with Astrid von Busekist at SciencesPo (originally published in French) out soon.
Michael Walzer is professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and editor emeritus at Dissent
magazine. Professor Walzer studied on a Fulbright Fellowship at Cambridge and completed his PhD in government at Harvard University.
Keith Krueger lectures at the SHU-UTS Business School in Shanghai.