A Conversation on Political Theory

Astrid von Busekist and Michael Walzer's book Justice is Steady Work is now published! (The French edition, Penser la justice. Itinéraire du savoir was released in early 2020). This book is a conversation between two thinkers on some of the main themes explored by Michael Walzer throughout his career. Astrid von Busekist, Professor of Political Theory at Sciences Po, answered our questions and presented this thought-provoking dialogue.

Can you tell us about the genesis of this project?

Astrid von Busekist: It's very simple: I asked Michael Walzer whether he would be interested in having a conversation about his work, starting with his first pieces in Dissent on the civil rights movement at the end of the 1950s. He immediately agreed and our discussions have been very lively. We talked about his career as a professor, researcher, editor, political activist, both in general and in biographical terms; but we also addressed very specific problems pertaining to the interpretation of his books or articles and his quite unique position as a political theorist and public intellectual in contemporary America. We also discussed nations, states, borders, multilateralism, Israel and Palestine.

Justice is steady work book cover/Justice is steady work book cover

How did you proceed and how did you choose among the major themes of Michael Walzer's thought?

AvB: Michael Walzer has written many books (more than 30) and articles (a couple of hundred), but the choice was not that difficult. We tried to cover the major topics—or rather, themes; they do not appear in any chronological order, Walzer has been addressing them in many different formats and contexts over the last 50 years.

The first series was obvious: the “classics” and major contributions to political theory: Just and Unjust Wars, Spheres of Justice, On Toleration, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, “Philosophy and Democracy”, “A critique of Philosophical Conversation,” “Liberalism and the art of Separation” to name just a few.

Another series deals with the way he conceives of social criticism (for example Interpretation and Social Criticism, The Company of Critics), and what he calls the “political theory license”: political theorists have a license to take and to defend political positions explicitly. He told me: “One of my last courses at Harvard was called simply ‘Socialism’, and it was a defence of my version of socialist theory and practice. And the only commitment I felt I had to live up to in the classroom was to tell the students about the strongest arguments against socialism.” The discussion around these texts was the opportunity to define what kind of political theorist Walzer is and what kind of political theory he actually favours.

Another very important strand in Walzer’s work deals with religion and revolution, and with the Hebrew Bible in particular.

Almost none of the chapters in this book is dedicated to one of Michael Walzer’s books in particular. We proceeded by themes, including a biographical chapter, a chapter on political theory, and a chapter dedicated to Dissent, the magazine he edited for over 30 years.

I should add that we made these choices together, either spontaneously because that was where our conversation was heading, or because we decided deliberately that we should talk about this or that problem of interpretation or reception.

You write that Michael Walzer's philosophy and social criticism are both "unique and vital". Can you say a few words about this?

AvB: The short answer is: that is exactly what the book aims to show.

The longer one would go like this: Walzer holds a special position among the philosophers of his generation—although he does not define himself as a philosopher or as a “systematic thinker”. He is a strong defender of “small theories”; he dislikes “weird thought experiments” analytical philosophers cherish, and he always starts with historical, empirical examples. Walzer is a social democrat, committed to the preservation of particulars, to the respect of local values, and to the defence of pluralism. The liberalism he promotes strongly associates the virtue of separation with the virtue of sharing. It is an art both of difference and of conversation. This is why he has been labelled a “communitarian,” at times even a conservative. Both labels are wrong in my view.

His commitment to “shared understandings” is much more complex than a conservative, relativist or communitarian stance. According to Walzer, rather than the pursuit of interests and needs, a society is best characterised by a set of shared understandings that allow us to make sense of our practices: we cannot and should not conceive of justice as an independent variable. We should refer just practices to shared social values. According to Walzer, this is paradoxically not a communitarian, but a universalist argument. The idea that distributive justice is relative to the meaning of the goods being distributed is a universalist idea: it is meant to shape distributive rules everywhere. This attention to particular histories, to local circumstances and to different social goods, started before Spheres with his book on Just and Unjust Wars. Since wars are fought across political and cultural boundaries, you have to argue in terms comprehensible to people on both sides.

The ramification of the particular/universal dialectic also enlightens Walzer’s analysis of tolerance and mutual respect. Indeed, in contrast to an explanation grounded in conservative or relativist communitarianism, this dialectic offers a more convincing explanation for his commitment to political belonging and to societies’ self-government and self-determination. It also grounds the importance he gives to the nation and the state. Values such as loyalty, friendship or patriotism have a universal meaning, yet to experiment with their blessings is always a singular experience.

It is by starting from particular experience that we can hope to mutually rise to the recognition of universal principles through repetition, successive additions, debates and discussions about our “specialised” morality, and that we can hope to identify as creative agents of that morality, as “moral makers”. Such identification implies, however, that no universal code is “correct”, and that no one code has the last say regarding morality or justice.

Dissent magazine logo/Dissent magazine logo

Dissent Magazine. Photo copyright: Rumors Studio / Public domain

In short, Walzer does not define a theoretical position or a philosophical critique detached from reality. His work rather echoes the program and commitment of Dissent’s founders, to which he dedicated a great deal of time and labour. To show its proximity to real politics and to its readers, Dissent explicitly defines itself as a “magazine” rather than an academic journal and, thereby, stands out from the sectarianism and theoretical purity of the ivory tower.

Dissent expresses pluralist commitments. It is political, “connected” with social problems, and with the difficult battles internal to the American left; it sets a stage for debate and takes into account its authors’ engagement to shaping a democratic culture. Created by two young ex-Trotskyists in the 1950s, the magazine met a remarkably long-lasting success, partly due to the fact that its contributors took the lessons of social critique seriously. Always amongst the closest to events, Dissent has managed to grasp the American Zeitgeist while providing citizens with a critical mirror wherein to reflect.

What Walzer has in mind is simple and deep: we assign norms and values to things and goods that govern our relationship with them and with other individuals. Things, or (material and immaterial) goods, are therefore intermediaries of social relations, and must be understood as something more than goods simpliciter. They become, through their circulation and through the complex process of determining their meaning, liaison officers between individuals. They literally create the social world...

To read the full interview, visit the CERI website.

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI 

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