On Dreams and Disconnects: the Ambiguities of a Liberal Sage – By Suzanne Schneider

Suzanne Schneider on Michael Walzer’s The Paradox of Liberation

Michael Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, Yale University Press, 2015, 192pp., $26
Michael Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, Yale University Press, 2015, 192pp., $26
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In 1935, the British-run Government of Palestine convened a meeting between the Zionist National Council (the Va’ad Leumi) and members of the anti-Zionist, Orthodox political party, Agudat Israel. Ever wary of a schism within Palestine’s Jewish community — the source of no little administrative trouble for a country governed on sectarian lines — the government was eager to facilitate some form of compromise between the two factions, and the proposed solution entailed dividing Jewish affairs into “religious” and “lay” components. The Va’ad Leumi’s representatives proposed ceding “religious” matters, including supervision of the Rabbinate, shechita (ritual slaughter), and burial services, to a board “consisting of persons with a sympathetic attitude to religion,” while retaining for itself control of “all economic, social and political affairs.” By contrast, Agudat Israel defined religious affairs in a far more expansive fashion, encompassing “the Rabbinate, Shechita, burial, education, maintenance of orphans, treatment of the sick, etc.” What is striking about this episode is not merely its reflection of “religious” and “secular” as contested categories whose boundaries were yet unstable, but the compromise that the Zionist leadership offered its rival: You can have religion – just leave us the rest.

This exchange, unearthed in the course of my own archival work, frequently came to mind as I read The Paradox of Liberation, a new book by the esteemed political scientist, Michael Walzer. Perhaps fitting for someone who has reached the age of gevurah (80), a time of renewed strength according to the rabbinic sages, Walzer has published a new book seeking to answer one of his discipline’s most vexing contemporary questions: How, in the course of a few decades, did secular revolutions in newly independent states give way to an uprising of religious radicalism? This short and widely accessible book represents an attempt by one of America’s foremost political thinkers to grapple with the so-called “return of religion” in Israel, India, and Algeria.

Walzer’s explanation of this resurgence and the broader relationship between secular liberation and religious revival is that the surge of religiosity in these contexts was a counterrevolutionary response to the disdain and condescension that Western-looking, secular leaders of the independence era exhibited toward their different religious traditions. In his telling, “the radical rejection of the past left, as it were, too little material for cultural construction” (29), meaning that the secular, egalitarian principles that liberationists professed to embrace never achieved more than a superficial foothold among the common people, most of whom (unlike the revolutionaries) were not educated in the crucibles of European political thought. As Walzer astutely notes, what united the nationalist elite in the Indian, Algerian, and Zionist contexts was their simultaneous sympathy for and hostility toward the people they hoped to liberate.

The book has much to recommend it, including Walzer’s crystal-clear prose and breadth of view, which allows him to cover the modern political history of three countries in less than 150 pages without coming across as a dabbler. He is acutely aware of that a book of this sort must leave things out, and he even gestures toward those silences. Yet the final product offers an example of the kind of writing many scholars dream of doing but cannot because of their understandable commitments to copious citations and contextualization. Apparently one of the many advantages of turning 80 is being freed enough from these academic conventions to write a book that might be widely read. That said, speaking in such broad strokes also makes his argument vulnerable to theoretical and historical challenges, and I found several points where the wind nearly left the book’s sails. Nevertheless The Paradox of Liberation remains compelling both on account of its analytic substance and its shortcomings, which reminded me how much fun critique can be. Walzer in fact dedicates the book to the late Clifford Geertz, a friend and colleague, “who would have argued with me about this book.” My sense is that many readers will have the same impulse.

Gandhi and Nehru, 1937. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Gandhi and Nehru, 1937. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Before engaging Walzer’s argument in depth, it is worth noting that some might raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Israel alongside India and Algeria as an instance of national liberation. In his review of the piece, Richard Falk notes that “India and Algeria were genuine liberation movements waged by indigenous nations to rid from the entire territorial space of their respective countries a deeply resented, exploitative, and domineering foreign presence.” Placing Israel in this category, while mostly ignoring the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs that its state formation entailed, “seems dubious, indeed polemical.” While I largely agree that Walzer’s personal support for Israel often overrides his own logic (more on that below), one of the peculiarities of Zionism is that, in the words of Ella Shohat, it constituted “a redemptive nationalist narrative vis-à-vis Europe and anti-Semitism and a colonialist narrative vis-à-vis the Arab people who ‘happened’ to reside in the place designated the Jewish homeland.” In my view, it is difficult to understand the internal reasoning of Israel without being attentive to the Janus-faced nature of Zionism, including the striking parallels between its political maneuvers and cultural production and those rooted in anti-colonial national struggles like India. None of this renders the nakba somehow inconsequential, but it does suggest that if we want to understand why Israel does the things it does, it is helpful to maintain a sense of historical simultaneity that either/or paradigms cannot quite accommodate. Within this context, Wazler’s comparison is not as misguided as it might initially seem.

With this in mind, let’s turn to the substance of the Walzer’s argument. Though it seems deceptively simple, the nuance of Walzer’s interpretation is best arrived at by understanding what he does not argue, as the general contours of his position might seem familiar at first glance. As he sees it, scholars have forwarded two prominent explanations to explain the salience, and indeed resurgence, of religious politics in post-colonial settings. The Marxist one, which he deems “more usefully wrong,” views nationalism as yet another form of false consciousness that shields the masses from recognizing their true material interests. Accordingly, “whatever the pretended opposition of nationalism and religious revival, these two reinforce each other, and they make for a narrow, parochial, and chauvinist politics.” The other explanation to gain credence in recent years is the post-colonial stance that regards fundamentalist religion as both a byproduct of colonial rule and the “dark twin” of national liberation. According to this view, secular nationalism and religious resurgence represent two sides of the same disfigured modern coin, and indeed, the latter is often seen as the logical outcome of the former.

Curiously though, Walzer conflates this argument drawn from post-colonial theory about causation and dialectical relation with another that regards the two political movements as qualitatively the same. He points to the fact that leaders of the independence era are easily distinguished from their religious heirs by a commitment to secular constitutions, open elections, minority rights, and women’s equality. Yet, the idea that these two movements are fundamentally the same is not what post-colonial scholars to my knowledge have actually claimed, and it is strange to see Walzer erect this straw man. At times, I got the sense that he did not fully understand the nature of their interventions, such as in characterizing Ashis Nandy or Akeel Bilgrami as advocates of anti-modern or nostalgic positions (105). For instance, pointing out that pre-modern “religious” life was more fluid and accommodating of difference than contemporary forms is not synonymous with wishing to roll back time, nor does it signify that these critics are insensitive to the hierarchical and oppressive nature of traditional practices.

More substantively, Walzer refuses to conclude that religious revival was the natural byproduct of secular nationalism — that is to say, he recognizes the historical relationship between the two movements, but not the causal necessity. As he argues in the Israeli case, the upswing of fundamentalist religion stems rather from “the democracy that the Labor Zionists created and then from their failure to produce a strong and coherent secular culture to go with that democracy” — that is, from the both the success (religious reactionaries love the voting booth) and the limits of the revolutionary project. The critical question therefore becomes, “What has gone wrong with, what are the obstacles to, the cultural reproduction of the secular democratic left?” Unlike other critics, Walzer views these secular revolutions as works in progress that are well worth completing, not as failed attempts that point to the emancipatory limits of liberalism or the nation-state itself.

From this fact, it may seem like The Paradox of Liberation is an unabashed liberal defense of the secular nation-state that chooses to double down on its foundational claims rather than re-examine them. In fact, Walzer’s prescriptions for combatting religious militancy are not those typically forwarded by his liberal peers. This brings us to one of the book’s central peculiarities and indeed frustrations: the fact that Walzer both dismisses the post-colonial position and then borrows from it heavily. The thinkers that he quotes most often, sometimes to criticize, but also to build on, are in fact Akeel Bilgrami, Uma Narayan, and Ashis Nandy. Indeed, one of the book’s key theoretical insights is based on Bilgrami’s critique of Nehruvian secularism as “Archimedean” rather than negotiated. “Remember Archimedes’ boast that he could move the universe if only he could stand somewhere outside it…The secularist project didn’t emerge from society itself; it wasn’t the product of internal arguments and negotiations” (110). Walzer uses this observation to point to the shallowness of secularism thrust upon societies from the outside and to the fact that it was the result of negation rather than engagement with the actual practices of those being liberated. Yet as he states in reference to the Jewish poet Hayyim Nachman Bialik, “There actually were intellectuals in the national liberation movements who aimed at a critical engagement with the old culture rather than a total attack on it. I like to think that had they won, the story might have turned out differently.”

Walzer does not explicitly state it, but there is corollary to his argument that liberationist leaders did not engage their respective traditions enough to produce a robust, and negotiated, secular culture — one that definitely links revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces. When, in the name of progress, secular leftists cede “religion” to conservative forces, just as we saw members of the Va’ad Leumi attempt, they run the risk of allowing those traditions to be defined solely by reactionary elements. Much more so than Walzer would like to admit, the loss of religious polyvocalism is a logical outcome of leftists’ decision that religion is no longer worth their sustained engagement. As I’ve argued elsewhere, in the oft-mentioned Islamic context there is no way to separate the rise of radical clerics in post-colonial states — often poorly educated in their traditions and preaching to masses whose Islamic education has been shoddy at best — from the secular disdain of “religion” by post-independence elites who viewed their neglect of Islamic learning as a means of shuffling their countries into full modernity. According to Maajid Nawaz, the founder of a counter-extremism think tank in London, this lack of rigorous Islamic education has no shortage of consequences closer to home. As he recently told Ben Taub, “Typical recruitment patters in Europe and the West tell us that it helps if that person doesn’t have a religious background.”

That said, one of the book’s analytic strong points is that Walzer recognizes the historicity of contemporary secularism as the particular product of European political engagement with Protestant Christianity. The implication is that a negotiated or vernacular secularism that emerges organically from an engaged interaction with other religious traditions would produce different modes of secular politics. Because “traditionalist worldviews can’t be negated, abolished, or banned,” what societies like Algeria, India, and Israel need most is a critical re-engagement with their respective religious traditions. As promising examples of how such engagement might occur, Walzer points to Muslim feminists who make their claims from within the frameworks of shari’a, and “insist that there are different understandings and different enactments of what is always called Qur’anic law, not a single authoritative version delivered by learned men, as religious zealots insist.” Similarly, “today religious women in every denomination of Judaism argue for equality in the language of the tradition — and write wonderfully subtle and intellectually engaging reinterpretations of both the Bible and the Talmud.”

Walzer recognizes the historicity of contemporary secularism as the particular product of European political engagement with Protestant Christianity.

An argument for vernacular secularism is a somewhat peculiar position for a liberal political theorist, but it is well within the conceptual language of subaltern studies and indeed runs parallel to Partha Chatterjee’s critique of one-size-fits-all “modular nationalism.” Such a call in fact represents the recognition of what scholars like Nandy have long argued: namely, that modernity has rendered many religious traditions far less polyvocal than their legal structures demand. Thus with so many of his key arguments either based on or consonant with scholarship associated with post-colonial studies, Walzer’s disavowal of the post-colonial view of things is all the more puzzling. In my reading, this tension between dismissal and appreciation gestures toward a fundamental unease about what these critiques, taken to their logical conclusions, imply for the future success of emancipatory projects based on secular nationalism. After all, some form of the latter remains Walzer’s uncontested goal — though, as I will argue, his own analysis often seems at odds with his stated aim.

I found this tension particularly evident in Walzer’s discussion of the Zionist case he knows best. Here there were both granular and substantive assertions that struck me as odd, debatable, or thoroughly unsupported by the historical record. To begin with, Walzer accepts much of what Zionist historiography has claimed about Zionism in particular and Jewish history in general: He characterizes diasporic Jewish life as weak and passive, regards the ingathering of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa as “a great success,” and writes of the Jewish people as a natural nation on account of their “common history, culture, and law.” Over the last two decades, Jewish studies scholars have challenged every single one of these assertions and unmasked the deeply Eurocentric viewpoint that they project. Jews in Germany and Baghdad in fact shared very little in terms of history, culture, or law (if the latter is meant to refer to lived practices rather than shared textual sources); only by writing the latter out of the historical record do we arrive at such a monolithic notion of Jewish history. Walzer also regards Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens as mostly laudatory, ignoring the foundational legal barriers regarding land ownership, housing, educational access, naturalization, and employment that render true equality impossible within the present state structure. The index of liberation cannot be solely, or even mostly, calculated by how a state treats its majority.

At the more theoretical level, the scaffolding of his general argument is built around an understanding of Zionism as a secular movement whose obsession with “negating the diaspora” meant “the recognition of tradition as a natural context for political engagement is missing in early Zionism.” This may be true (and even then it is debatable) if discussing Ben-Gurion, but it is hardly a fair characterization of Zionism as a whole. The men and women who spearheaded Zionist cultural production, many of whom immigrated during the Second Aliyah, were anything but unengaged with the Jewish past, including its religious forms. In fact, as Arieh Saposnik has shown, it was precisely this cultural vanguard that re-imagined Jewish ritual practices in support of the new Hebrew life. Walzer’s characterization is more appropriate for a thoroughly assimilated figure like Herzl than for the Eastern European pioneers who created the real foundation of Zionism in Palestine. Important figures like A.D. Gordon, S.Y. Agnon, and Avraham Shlonsky were not wholly hostile to their past, and they in fact exhibited precisely the form of engagement that Walzer claims was absent from early Zionism.

Walzer’s claim becomes even more unstable if we look at Zionist educational practices, where schools across the ideological spectrum used curricula that were infused with biblical commands regarding the settlement of the land. During the formative Mandate period, “Judaism” itself arguably changed as school curricula prioritized the study of Mishnaic tracts such as Bikkurim, Pe’ah, Shevi’it, which deal with agriculture but had not been widely studied in the Diaspora. Moreover, though they account for an inordinate amount of scholarly attention, Labor Zionists were in fact a numerical minority in the yishuv. The majority of Palestine’s Jewish children attended schools administered by either “General” or religious (Mizraḥi) Zionists, and these schools largely shared a curriculum that explicitly emphasized the sacred nature of the national project. It seems though many of these children, who were raised on the Bible as a national history textbook, did not get the message that God was no longer supposed to be relevant.

It has been most striking to me how poorly the notion of the secular describes what was actually unique about the movement.

Indeed, having spent many years studying Zionist education during Mandate Palestine, what has been most striking to me is how poorly the notion of the secular describes what was actually unique about the movement. I would rather argue that Zionism was characterized by a conscious attempt to blur the boundaries between the sacred and profane and indeed, to reinforce the sanctity of mundane acts. These efforts were hugely successful in mobilizing the population, and indeed it seems, perhaps too successful. Though Walzer briefly mentions Gershon Scholem, he does not mention what was to my mind his most prescient anxiety: “That sacred language on which we nurture our children, is it not an abyss that must open up one day?” The alternative to Walzer’s explanation is that it was precisely the instrumental use of religious texts, customs, and idioms that threatened to hurl liberation movements off the messianic cliff.

In a similar vein, Walzer accepts the mainstream view of Israel’s Haredi population as insufficiently invested in the national project, a population segment that doesn’t “recognize a ‘good’ that is common to themselves and all other Israelis.” He might be right about the opportunistic nature of Haredi politics, but not about their singularity in this regard. Such parochialism was in fact a defining feature of the Zionist movement since its earliest days, and stems from a view of civic responsibility ending at the boundaries of one’s own community, however defined. Thus one finds the good, secular, leftist Zionist leadership of the Mandate period opposed that Jewish tax dollars should go toward financing Arab education or other social services in Palestine. Again, Walzer would like to absolutely distinguish between the state’s founders and its current political forces, reflecting his own sense of nostalgia for the imaginary good old days before the religious right became a political force. Israel’s secular leaders had no difficulty expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, placing the remaining Arabs under a military dictatorship, and subjecting Mizraḥi immigrants to sustained and systematic discrimination. Why are we idealizing them again? Rhetorical support for equality is nice, but cannot serve as a substitute for or counter-balance to actual policies.

Walzer has an answer for such challenges, and it comes largely in the assertion that the march of emancipatory progress is a slow and sometimes twisted process, but that it is ultimately worth completing. The United States serves as an example that the revolution may yet succeed, though he recognizes that the American case is quite distinct from Israel, India, or Algeria. He discusses many of those differences, and yet does not mention what is to my mind the truly pertinent detail that actually does render the United States somewhat exceptional: America is not a nation-state either along the traditional European lines, or the ethno-religious ones developed by movements like Zionism. The form of enlightened liberation Walzer hopes for has been historically difficult to achieve in nation-states that speak in terms of ancient cultures, territories, or blood, and this difficulty is ever-present in contemporary European states’ struggle to find space for Muslim immigrants within the boundaries of national belonging.

Because Walzer is at his most insightful when he recognizes the limits of the secular project, it is all the more quizzical to see him double down on nationalism as the necessary context for liberation. When he states, “pluralism pressed American Protestants toward toleration, disestablishment, and separation,” he seems to disregard the fact that the liberation movements he discusses have in one form or another been rooted in the eradication or careful management of difference. Whether it be Zionism’s goal of creating a dor aḥid (unified generation) that assimilated various diasporic identities into a new Hebrew mold, or the readiness with which India’s leaders accepted partition, the type of pluralism that was foundational to the American experience has no structural parallel here. In closing, he even admits that “the experience of exile and then of emancipation-in-exile might well teach contemporary Israelis something of great importance: how different Jewish communities could coexist within the framework of a secular state, alongside other forms of difference, other (non-Jewish) religious communities. The new Israeli majority might learn a lot from the experience of the old Jewish minorities” (129). Taken to their logical conclusions, praise for American pluralism and validation of Jewish exilic life does not lead to any contemporary form of mainstream Zionism, but rather to some form of bi-nationalism. The fact that Walzer refuses this conclusion is both frustrating and telling, as if his heart and head are pointed in different directions.

Despite these shortcomings, The Paradox of Liberation remains worth engaging, if only to argue about with its author. To ask, as Walzer does, “how might a critical engagement with the [religious] tradition strengthen liberationist culture?” is to recognize that secularism does not have all the answers, the tools, or even the questions required to achieve emancipation. That they might come from “religion” itself is a sentiment so far afield from the political science practiced by liberals of Walzer’s generation that it is both surprising and gratifying to see him make this claim. Renewed strength indeed.