So-called left-wing Zionism is white nationalism by another name
Michael Walzer is an unlikely nationalist. Where many political philosophers, especially on the center-left, tend to think of nation-states as temporary and unfortunately parochial compromises with universal ideas of justice, for Walzer they’re at the center of what it is to form a just community. “To give up the state,” he writes in his most famous book Spheres of Justice, “is to give up any effective self-determination.” But countries have disappointed the public intellectual. In his new book The Paradox of Liberation, Walzer wants to know why the secular and secure states we were promised in the 20th century have failed to appear. This, he laments, is not our beautiful end to history, but a stumble on the way there.
In the current dying generation of American left-wing political philosophers, few have engaged with what passes as the American lettered public as much as Walzer has. Starting at the age of 27, he logged over 50 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He spent more than three decades as the editor of the socialist journal Dissent, and remains a contributing editor at the New Republic. Add in dozens of books and hundreds of public essays and academic articles, and he’s as close to a true public intellectual American social democrats are going to get. But since 9/11, his support in principle for the War on Terror (and in particular for the invasion of Afghanistan) surprised readers who had taken him for just another anti-imperialist lefty. Instead, he scolded the left for failing to oppose political Islam and “blaming America first.”
Close readers of his literary output might not have found this strange. For decades Walzer has been committed to the nation-state as the only plausible structure for the communal exercise of ethical behavior. Universal standards sound nice, he says, but trying to get everyone to agree is more trouble than it’s worth. In his conception, a country is like a family, tied to one another by common heritage and willing to tolerate, admit, and assimilate the occasional outsider. Rejecting a Rawlsian one-size-fits-all model of just governance, Walzer believes that only as nations can groups of people agree on a hierarchy of goods and distribute them fairly. And as nations of people self-determine into nation-states, they’ll tend toward secular democracy as the best way to incorporate different beliefs within the community.
In The Paradox of Liberation, Walzer is curious about why some countries seem to be going in reverse. He focuses on three nations (Algeria, India, Israel) where an original commitment to secular democracy is losing ground to a renewed religious fundamentalism. From these cases, he generalizes a pattern and the titular paradox: To liberate a nation, to bring it into being, leaders need to call upon a common heritage and historical values, but to progress into secular democracy, they need to create a new, modern citizenry, one dedicated to a certain level of procedural pluralism. If their dedication to secularism is too inconsistent, if leaders lapse into easy appeals to religious nationalism, they’re liable to bring about a return of the repressed in the form of right-wing Orthodox Jews or Islamic fundamentalists or militant conservative Hindus.
When Walzer writes of a nation of people, he doesn’t just mean a country’s population. For him, a nation is a historical community, an in-group that shares a relationship to a territory. National belonging is communicated by blood, but there’s no way to test for it; it’s something you have to feel and believe in. Throughout his books, Walzer doesn’t outright say that everyone should go back to where they belong, but the model he has developed over decades suggests they probably should, and if they do, they should be welcomed back by their “own” nation-state. At the very least, he claims, every country owes its minorities the right of safe exit and return to their native land. This formulation echoes Victorian-era ideas of race and nationality, in which blood links one not only to land but to a national cause. In George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda, for example, an English gentleman discovers his hidden Jewish roots and decides to follow a vague proto-Zionist move “East.” Or Eliot’s poem The Spanish Gypsy, where a princess discovers she’s also Gypsy royalty and attempts to bring her nation into existence in its “homeland,” the African jungle. Although Eliot’s narratives solicit sympathy, the idea that people have a place on the earth they “belong” according to their identity is as dangerous as it is inconsistent.
Walzer explicitly endorses this idea of national-territorial belonging. In 1983’s Spheres of Justice, he writes, “Nations look for countries because in some deep sense they already have countries: the link between people and land is a crucial feature of national identity.” That “some deep sense” is the vital element that ties people and territory, but it’s hard to explain without recourse to Victorian fictions about blood-based yearnings for homelands. Buying into these narratives allows Walzer to imagine, for example, that the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations after World War I was proper, even desirable, despite resulting in the forced displacement of two million people to territories where they had no historical or present ties. “What else are such states for?” he asks. But only a page later Walzer argues in general against forced transfer of citizens across national borders, implying the he regards the aforementioned deportation of Macedonian Muslims to Turkey and Anatolian Christians to Greece as something else entirely. Here Walzer conceives of national belonging as a function of religious identity, not by name, but as a nebulous ethnic-territorial link.
If you want to stay somewhere you don’t belong, Walzer thinks the people living there probably do owe you something like hospitality, but not as much as you owe them. To describe the process of assimilation, Walzer uses a shocking metaphor. The state with immigrants, he writes, “is like a family with live-in servants.”
That is not an attractive image, for a family with live-in servants is–inevitably, I think–a little tyranny. The principles that rule in the household are those of kinship and love. They establish the underlying pattern of mutuality and obligation, of authority and obedience. The servants have no proper place in that pattern, but they have to be assimilated to it. Thus, in the pre-modern literature on family life, servants are commonly described as children of a special sort … when servants come to be seen as hired workers, the great household begins its slow decline. The pattern of living-in is gradually reversed, erstwhile servants seek households of their own.
To be clear: this isn’t written as a description of oppression, but as a model of how things should be. It’s hard to say what’s most wrong with this idea of the national family and its racialized servants, but Walzer gives a hint with another couple misguided books. In Interpretation and Social Criticism and The Company of Critics, Walzer outlines his conception of the “connected critic”—the social critic who interrogates his own society’s flaws from a position near the center of his nation. These are the figures who put a check on nationalist zeal, with special attention to the fate of people on the periphery. They share a common conflict, possessing a legitimate and faithful tie to the nation, as well as a critical drive to question it.
Radicals, who want to pull up rather than replant a nation’s roots, are not connected critics. The connected critic’s targets are his own people, not an outside oppressor. Those whose fate is not shared by the rest of the nation cannot be connected critics unless they’re able to stake a national claim. One who Walzer names is Breyten Breytenbach, an Afrikaner poet who was exiled and imprisoned after he married a French woman of Vietnamese ancestry, violating apartheid codes against inter-racial fraternization. But what claim does Breytenbach have to the territory of South Africa? Does he not “belong” in Europe where he was exiled? If he is a connected critic, then forming an ancestral nation is as easy as a few generations of colonial settlement. Walzer confirms as much: “The Afrikaners,” he writes, “have become one of Africa’s tribes, hybrid like all the others.” Breytenbach’s claim is not only legitimate, but as a white victim of apartheid, he is uniquely connected to the nation.
Why, when looking for an exemplary critic of apartheid South Africa, would Walzer go out of his way to pick a white guy? The reason is simple: Black people can’t be connected critics. He writes in Interpretation and Social Criticism:
Marginality has often been a condition that motivates criticism and determines the critic’s characteristic tone and appearance. It is not, however, a condition that makes for disinterest, dispassion, open-mindedness, or objectivity… Marginal men and women are in but not wholly of their societies. The difficulties they experience are not the difficulties of detachment but of ambiguous connection. Free them from those difficulties and they may well lose the reasons they have for joining the critical enterprise. Or, criticism will look very different than it looks when it is worked up on the margins by “alienated intellectuals,” or members of subject classes or oppressed minorities, or even outcastes or pariahs.
For Walzer, a critic without full social rights within a nation cannot truly do critique, because their objections are insufficiently separate from their personal interests. It is too easy for a black person to criticize apartheid South Africa; they aren’t connected to it. This is a white-supremacist inversion of W.E.B DuBois’s “double consciousness,” in which the marginal are compelled to see everything (including and especially themselves) through the eyes of their oppressors. DuBois saw this as part of a national claim to America: “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.” Double consciousness is an affliction, but also a second sight into the nation’s center and its relationship to the margins. For Walzer, however, a connected critic must be detached from the state (he must not be a member of the ruling party, for example) and also “detached from his own marginality.” But in a world where, as André 3000 puts it, “across cultures, darker people suffer most,” detaching is easier for some than for others.
What is the nature of a national claim if the children of settler-colonists like Breytenbach have one but indigenous North Americans do not? Returning to Walzer’s notion of the “deep sense” of connection to a country, it’s clear how it might be easier to develop a deep sense of belonging to a country where you and your ancestors have been treated like equal members than if you’ve been enslaved, murdered, raped, robbed, humiliated, and terrorized for centuries. The Walzerian solution might very well be a Garveyite “Back to Africa” move, but according to Walzer’s formulation, the children of white colonists have a—if not the—legitimate claim to those countries too.
Reading The Paradox of Liberation with this earlier work, it becomes clear that Walzer’s “deep sense” of ancestral attachment to territory is the basis for his entire ethical system. Without this intangible link, there could be no spheres in which to pursue justice. All we would be left with are spheres of domination, where claimless groups fight to maintain their hold on territory though force. Of course, in such a scenario, the dominant groups would probably invent historical rights as part of their ideological justification, as is the conqueror’s wont. How then, do we distinguish a legitimate ancestral claim from, say, Germany’s invasion of Austria, or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or Japan’s invasion of Korea, or the Mormon settlement of Wo’tééneihí?
The Mormons are a good example: Before settling the land that would become known as Utah, they had been driven from the eastern states despite an ancestral attachment to New York, where their prophets had buried golden plates with the word of God millennia before. Luckily, in the mid 19th-century, God awarded his wandering disciples a large parcel of incorporated (but not unoccupied) desert land. Only 150 years later, how would Walzer adjudicate a dispute between the Mormons of Utah and the children of the land’s indigenous population? Both have claims to North America that stretch back thousands of years—one is very obviously a modern fabrication, but no doubt Mormons feel nonetheless a “deep sense” of attachment to the territory. Here Walzer gives us a geopolitical rather than a historical standard: Breytenbach has a claim to South Africa because the Afrikaners “are there to stay,” and so too, presumably, are the Mormons.
Walzer puts a lot of faith in the nation. In The Paradox of Liberation, he clarifies his position on nationalism versus the left: “What was probably most important in the failure of Marxist internationalism was the widely shared belief that only sovereignty guaranteed the cultural survival of national and religious groups (and perhaps also the physical survival of their members), and only sovereignty could bring full equality in the already existing society of states.” It’s crystal clear that Walzer’s primary agenda is conservative, to maintain and justify what are, in effect, racial nations. Within these nations, it’s up to connected critics to push the community toward just dealings with outsiders. In Walzer’s model, most people go to or already live where they belong, and the rest choose to rely on the decency of their hosts.
As a work of modern history, Paradox of Liberation is thin and cursory. The sections on the dynamics of Algerian and Indian liberation struggles are worthless. As a work of political philosophy, the book is only notable because it points so directly to the contradiction at the foundation of Walzer’s thought, a contradiction perhaps best expressed in the Israeli flag. The disappointment at Paradox’s core is Israel’s failure in Walzer’s estimation to fulfil its secular promise. “Zionism was,” he writes, “at its center and in the years of its greatest achievements, overwhelmingly a secular project.” Now, authoritarian-minded Orthodox Jews are insurgent within the state, and they seek to replace democracy with religious law. Despite setting out to establish a just, secular, democratic Jewish nation, that trajectory is now in danger.
But how genuine was this possibility in the first place? If the “Jewish” in Jewish state doesn’t refer to Talmudic law, then what exactly does it mean? Under Walzer’s formulation, it refers to the race (in the Victorian sense) of Jews. Israel is our homeland, to which I and all other Jews have an ancestral claim. But not all Jewish claims are equal; the Israeli state has pursued a policy of population suppression among Ethiopian Jews by means of non-consensual sterilization. Racial states are based on stories that are always already entangled in histories of colonialism and wealth extraction justified by white supremacy, and this has affected the legitimacy (that is, plausibility) of every modern national claim. The Zionist fiction, that the race of Jews is entitled to the territory of Israel, can never be the foundation for a secular state. Racialism is a particularly pernicious form of faith.
As a social-democratic connected critic of the Zionist project, Walzer places himself between Israel’s aggressive conservatives and left-wing solidarity with Palestinian liberationists. He endorses Israel’s right to exist, while questioning the “by any means available” that usually follows. But a close reading of his theoretical work reveals a rightward collapse in Walzer’s thought, indeed in all left-wing Zionist thought. Without the messianic narrative (which Walzer rejects), Israel is a Jewish state in the modern mode. There will always be non-Jews in Israel—as Walzer cites in Paradox, an early Jewish criticism of Zionism was that observant Jews could only operate the state’s machinery six days a week. But Israel as such simply cannot assimilate non-Jews as equal citizens. It is condemned, like all of Walzer’s gated ancestral nations, to continue as a “little tyranny,” a theocracy of blood, myth, and guns.
Walzer misses the religious aspect of ethno-nationalism in an inexcusable fashion. In the postscript to Paradox he takes on the United States, which, in his telling, never had a national liberation movement because (Mormons aside) there was no ancestral claim. America’s was a political, rather than a social revolution, which made its secularism especially resilient. “The self-confident activism of the new Americans led to a very harsh engagement with the indigenous peoples of the continent,” he understates, “But it set close limits on the internal harshness of the secular-religious encounter.” Why, without a religious conflict, couldn’t secular democratic America assimilate the indigenous people? For the same reason Ethiopian-Israeli is a contradiction: As a self-consciously white nation, the United States could only ever include native people as “live-in servants” on their own ancestral land.
The possibility of a secular and democratic Jewish state is so hard to incorporate into any consistent system of ethics that Walzer takes it as premise and builds from there. It’s not a bad strategy: if you can’t resolve a contradiction, bury it in the foundation. But the consequence is that Michael Walzer has developed decades of theory on indefensible ground. It’s as if he constructed a whole system of ethics predicated on the Roma nation’s claim to the African jungle. In the name of so-called left-wing Zionism, Walzer has attempted to smuggle white nationalism into the left. But, as Walzer himself might remind us, the Zionist claim to the left is only valid if they’re “here to stay.” Let this not be the case.