Michael WalzerMar 18, 2023
The Struggle for a Decent Politics
On "Liberal" as an Adjective
Yale University Press 2023
The national purpose of the American state is to realize and then sustain the democracy and the equality that was the promise of our founding. I believe that requires perennial struggle and … groups like Black Lives Matter are an essential part of that struggle … Those are the social movements I hope to join, support, and that I hope will always be qualified by the adjective ‘liberal’.
– Michael Walzer, NBN interview (2023)
In the 1990 collection What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings edited by Solomon and Murphy and published by Oxford, teachers had a textbook to help introduce students to a broad cross-section of political thinkers ranging from Hobbes to Hegel to Hayek to Mill, Nozick, Rawls, Sandel, Taylor and Walzer among others. It is worth mentioning because Michael Walzer insists he is not a formal philosopher, does not in fact, deserve to be grouped with the likes of a Dewey or a Hegel, as Richard Rorty had done in the introduction of his 1999 collection of essays in Philosophy and Social Hope:
‘Recently Michael Walzer, a political philosopher best known for his earlier work, Spheres of Justice, has come to Hegel’s and Dewey’s defense. In his more recent book Thick and Thin, Walzer argues that we should not think of the customs and institutions of particular societies as accidental accretions around a common core of universal moral rationality, the transcultural moral law. Rather, we should think of the thick set of customs and institutions as prior, and as what commands moral allegiance.’
Rorty’s broader point remains as relevant as arguably, the positions of the political philosophers as collected in the Solomon and Murphy reader mentioned above, What is Justice?, which also recognized the appeal of Walzer’s ‘very different approach’ to the Rawls’ paradigmatic A Theory of Justice. That same collection also shares Nozick’s critical response to Rawls - mentioned because of the well-known course, ‘Capitalism and Socialism’, that Robert Nozick and Michael Walzer taught together at Harvard.
A former student, the Washington Post columnist, Brookings senior fellow, and policy professor E.J. Dionne once said: it was one of the best courses he ever took, adding, it was Michael Walzer ‘who very much shaped my view’.
A short list of Professor Walzer’s book titles include Just and Unjust Wars, Spheres of Justice - A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, The Company of Critics, Thick and Thin - Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, On Toleration, Politics and Passion, The Jewish Political Tradition, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, A Foreign Policy for the Left, as well as a published conversation - Justice is Steady Work: A Conversation on Political Theory - published by Polity in 2020.
This interview focuses primarily on his latest book, The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective (2023, Yale University Press) which does much to clarify a simple, yet crucial distinction, between liberal and illiberal sensibilities underlying the pluralism, populism, and polarization today.
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 can be reached at keithNBn@gmail.com