Commentary Magazine

Radical Principles, by Michael Walzer

One Man’s Socialism

Radical Principles: Reflections of an Unreconstructed Democrat.
by Michael Walzer.
Basic Books. 310 pp. $15.00.

The author of earlier books on the Puritan Revolution, civil disobedience, and war, Michael Walzer has been since 1960 an editor of Dissent, where many of the present pieces originally appeared. They are of unusual interest because of the evanescent quality of what Walzer persists in describing as his “socialism.” He describes himself variously as on the “near Left,” a “democratic socialist,” and—in this book’s title—a “radical.” His favorite enemy appears to be the “neoconservatives.” Oddly, while Walzer sometimes tries to show how radical he is—in, perhaps, the left-most 1 percent of the population—at others he portrays himself as part of the political mainstream.

To his Right, Walzer perceives—in the first part of the book—not only the Goldwater of 1964 but also those liberals who cherish the welfare state. His treatment of the New Left, in the essays constituting the second part, seems designed to defend his credentials as a moderate while yet giving gentle approval to the contributions of the New Left to “the Good Old Cause.” The three essays in the third section—on modernization, revolution, and the intellectuals—reflect subjects and approaches of hoary socialist tradition. The final four essays seek to gather under the umbrella of socialism such recent passions of the Left as affirmative action for blacks and women.

Walzer owes considerably more to Rousseau and to the syndicalists than to Marx. It might be said that he is the kind of socialist whom Marx abominated, utopian, moralistic, quasi-religious; and that he is the sort of democrat whom Edmund Burke abhorred, vaguely populist while yet most concerned with the intellectual elite—in Walzer’s phrase, with “the liberated men and women of our own time.” Unlike Burke, Walzer is romantically silent about human untrustworthiness, abuses of power, and popular excesses. His socialism has more to say about style and culture than about institutional checks and balances, political practicality, and economic common sense. He is more likely to quote Walt Whitman than Lenin, and to prefer Marx’s visionary humanism to his analysis of power and economic strategy.



Rousseau is the key. Walzer coins the romantic concept of “civism,” a quality of virtuous public life which owes nearly everything to Rousseau’s attempt to create a new secular religion of political life. Those things which others seek in religion—purpose, transcendence, virtue, ritual, community, liturgy—Walzer seeks in politics. That is about the substance of socialism’s appeal for him. His statement of core values is (from a socialist point of view) shockingly bourgeois, yet his socialism provides him with texts and occasions for masking that core with arguments designed to align him with the current demands of left-wing thought, however out of tune these may be not only with Marx but also with the inner conservatism of Rousseau. The tyranny of left-wing fashion upon a strong mind has seldom been more clearly evidenced.

Consider, first, the core. Walzer locates the “deep principles” of the Left in ancient “common convictions” that “were and are part of our cultural heritage.” He names these “deep principles” of socialist thought: “individual freedom, hard work, craftsmanship, honesty, and loyalty.” Such a list would have been too bourgeois even for Adam Smith, who in The Theory of the Moral Sentiments added such—dare one say “socialist”?—values as sympathy, benevolence, fellow feeling, fair play, and the conscience of the impersonal spectator.

To the core, Walzer adds a defense of authority: “The goal of democrats and socialists is to share and to legitimize, but not to abolish authority.” In any future socialist order it is “crucial that some men and women be able to exercise authority and that others, despite their new and touchy dignity, be willing to accept it.” Next, Walzer adds a defense of private property: “Again, the goal of democrats and socialists is to share and to legitimize, but not to abolish property.” His reason for this view, stunning in a socialist, is that “we cannot value work without valuing the values that work produces.”

Walzer goes on to attack the centralized, bureaucratic state, both under socialism and under the welfare state. He sounds altogether like a neoconservative, except that he creates a socialist patina: “Political power must always be twice-won. It must be won first with the help of the state . . . against established corporate or local elites. Then it must be won again by new popular forces against the state.” His motive for this statement becomes immediately clear, for he adds that women and blacks are still fighting the first battle while others, he hopes, are ready for the second. Socialism “requires insurgency, that is, self-government within the welfare state and against it whenever necessary.” Socialism also entails a “great paradox” in the sense that “The state toward which we must always remain tense, watchful, and resistant is or will almost certainly become the most legitimate, rationally purposive, and powerful state that has ever existed.” Against this danger, however, Walzer offers little but wishes.

One of Walzer’s most bourgeois essays embroiders Oscar Wilde’s mot: “The trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings.” This essay, “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen,” suggests that Marx was insufficiently socialist in describing a future in which the citizen would hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and play the critic after dinner—the very image of the gentleman farmer. As Walzer observes, Marx left out the vital and all-consuming political activities the citizen would be saddled with: the morning meeting of the Council on Animal Life, the special session after lunch of the Fisherman’s Council, the late-night meetings of study groups, clubs, editorial boards, and political parties. Blessedly, Walzer would defend the right of the less devout to absent themselves from meetings and to eschew the “apparatchik tyranny” of the militants and the activists.



One might conclude, then, that only a residual, inherited piety keeps Walzer in the ranks of socialism. But that would be an error. Socialism still grips him in the iron jaws of coercive state action, most centrally with regard to affirmative action and the distribution of income. His reasoning bends all over itself to come up with quotas which will permit blacks, women, and others to gain those “key entry points to the good life which money affords.” And for him, “the present distribution of wealth makes no moral sense.”

Walzer’s argument for affirmative action and the radical redistribution of income is that all social rewards must be for intrinsic reasons, so that money will not be allowed to buy learning, love, political power, or the like. He wishes “the abolition of the power of money outside its own sphere” (emphasis his). He dreams of “a society in which wealth is no longer convertible into social goods with which it has no intrinsic connection.” He admits that it is impossible to abolish money, but this impossibility he converts into “the strongest possible argument for the radical redistribution of wealth.”

Surely, he does not mean to redistribute his own (Walzer writes as though he were one of the poor). So what is he up to? One used to think that democratic socialism represented high and correct ideals; its failures in practice merely propelled one to keep one’s faith pure. Then one began to think that democratic socialism was incoherent not only in practice but also in theory. Now, in Walzer, one can see that the errors even of socialist theory are not innocent. For a society which empowers the coercive state to judge the intrinsic moral value of every economic agent makes itself God. How can the state or its agents know? How can they read hearts? Who would trust the state with so much power?

To be sure, persons gifted with extraordinary intellect and capacities for leadership are often born poor. Such talents are often blocked from emergence not simply by poverty but by the envy, rivalry, and resistance of others, by rigid bureaucratic plans, and by cowardice, passivity, or other personal flaws even in the talented themselves. A society which wishes to encourage the flowering of such talent does well, then, to offer incentives in addition to the recognition of merit when it appears. Such a society needs fluidity, openness, serendipity. It needs room for the invention of new sources of wealth and new avenues toward power. How would the Jews, Italians, Lebanese, Chinese, and other demonstrably successful groups in America have propelled so many of their young to the top in so short a time except in a fluid and mobile society—and without passing anyone’s test of intrinsic moral value? By contrast, the road from utopian socialism to the Ayatollahs, Moral Majorities, and tyrannies of this world—all based upon “intrinsic” moral tests—is a short one.



In thinking about meritocracy, Walzer is surprisingly narrow. He overlooks the genius of the American system, which does not claim that each successful individual has greater merit than the next fellow. Its genius lies, rather, in the system as a whole, and in the intergenerational rise and fall of a loose, uncoercive, rough justice. Exactly because money is convertible—the characteristic about which Walzer feigns to be offended—money is subject to foolish uses and to wise. Many families who possess wealth for one generation (or more) lose it in the next; new families are constantly acquiring it. Meritocracy claims that for a society as a whole, over time, it is more fair to rely not on intrinsic moral virtue alone but on extrinsic monetary incentives.

This is so for two reasons. First, judgments of intrinsic worth are best left to God, never to the state or its agents. Second, the fluidity of such a meritocratic system is more likely over time to add new reasons for the talented to develop themselves to their utmost, to provide them material means for making their case heard, and to precipitate constantly renewed and unpredictable shifts in social balances of power, as older wealth grows slack and as new social groups arise to seek their day in the sun. Hungry talent is rare enough, and will out.

Democratic socialism, in Walzer’s hands, presumes not only to play God but to do so with the coercive power of the state. For what the state wishes to do it will always find reasons. His tortured defense of quotas tangibly corrupts Walzer’s own reasoning. Just so, the practice of quotas corrupts all who participate in them. First quotas, later merit, sounds all too much like the original Leninist paradigm: first the dictatorship, then the abolition of the state. First the abolition of money outside its own sphere, then intrinsic virtue. It is easier to believe in Santa Claus. The first moral obligation, Pascal wrote, is to think clearly. Illusions are no sign of moral idealism, only of an odd wish to destroy all that one claims to hold dear.

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