Liberal Commitments

An interview with Michael Walzer on The Struggle for a Decent Politics

Timothy Shenk

From democratic socialists to right-wing populists, with plenty of anxious centrists in between, it seems like everyone agrees that liberalism is in trouble. But what about the qualities that liberals have shown at their best? In his latest book, The Struggle for a Decent Politics, longtime Dissent editor Michael Walzer argues that we can, and should, rescue the virtues of the liberal tradition from the crisis of liberalism. I spoke with Walzer about why he says that socialists should be proud to call themselves liberals—and why so many on the left disagree.

Timothy Shenk: Let’s start with the end of the book, where you write, “battles for decency and truth are among the most important political battles of our time. And the adjective ‘liberal’ is our most important weapon.” Why does so much depend on a single adjective?

Michael Walzer: If we imagine the kinds of battles that are going on over democracy, with Viktor Orbán talking about “illiberal democracy,” and with other examples, most recently in Israel; if we imagine some of the long, old arguments about the role of vanguards in the forward movement of socialism; if we think about the battles that are now going on over nationalism in many parts of the world, where we are facing an increasingly illiberal version of nationalism—in all these cases, it seems that getting democracy right, getting socialism right, getting nationalism right really hangs on getting the liberal adjective in place and insisting on the qualifications that it brings with it. I imagine those battles as hanging on the value and the effectiveness of that adjective.

Shenk: You put a lot of emphasis on the distinction between “liberal” as adjective and “liberalism” as noun. What do you see as the difference between the two?

Walzer: I began with a couple of other books. Carlo Rosselli is one of my heroes; he was a leader of the non-Communist, antifascist political resistance in Italy in the 1920s and ’30s, he was assassinated by Mussolini’s thugs in Paris in 1937, and a few years before that he published a book: Liberal Socialism. And then I have a friend, Yael Tamir, who did a dissertation with Isaiah Berlin, which produced a book called Liberal Nationalism. She served as Minister of Education in one of the last center-left governments in Israel. I was thinking about the role of the adjective in those phrases: “liberal socialism” and “liberal nationalism.” And it seemed to me that the adjective—liberal—is more useful than the noun—liberalism.  

Liberalism in Europe, today, is something like “libertarianism”—it is a right-wing ideology. There used to be a left libertarianism, which is probably better called anarchism, and that persists in various sectarian versions, but it isn’t much in the public eye. And then in the United States, liberalism generally means “New Deal liberalism.” …