Michael Walzer: The Art of Theory Interview

Michael Walzer is Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Advanced Studies and one of the most cited political theorists of our time. We sat down with him in his Princeton office in late 2012 to discuss his work and context.

Art of Theory: What first sparked your interest in political theory?

Michael Walzer: Well, my interest was, and still is, not in political theory, but in politics.

Political theory is a way of talking about politics. It is politics reflected in tranquility, as Wordsworth said of poetry. I grew up during World War II, so I was interested in war. I sort of came of age politically at Brandeis University, where, as I like to say, the 60s began in the 50s. Brandeis was a new university, and the way its president recruited faculty was to look for people who couldn’t get jobs elsewhere. So we had a lot of lefties on the faculty, including the group of people who founded Dissent magazine, with whom I got involved very early. And then I was active in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement during the 60s, and political theory for me was just the way of thinking about what I was doing.

Political theorists have a license that isn’t given to other academics: it’s a license to defend political opinions in academic settings. I can defend a left wing theory of distributive justice, I can defend social democracy, I can defend participatory democracy, and it’s okay for me to do that so long as I do it in a rational way and pay attention to the strongest opponents of my own positions. I don’t have to do that in a political meeting, but I should do it in a classroom.

Art of Theory: What was it like becoming a political theorist or a student of politics in that time?

Walzer: Well, at Harvard in the 50s and 60s, political theory was the history of political theory. No one was doing what is now called normative political theory. That revival happened in philosophy departments, not in political science departments, and I was a historian of political theory. My first book was about the Puritan Revolution, because I wanted to write about revolutions and I didn’t have enough French to write about the French Revolution. The King’s English was much more accessible.

My first job was at Princeton, and there I fell in with a group of philosophers—Bob Nozick, Tom Nagel—who were engaged in a different way of talking about politics than the historical way that was dominant in politics departments. I never quite became a philosopher, but I discovered I could write about politics in that reflective way, and that’s what I began to do. First with a series of theses on political obligation and then, as a result of my engagement in the anti-war movement, I began to think about just and unjust wars.

Art of Theory: So from the beginning you’ve been engaged with scholars, on the one hand, and writing for a broader popular audience, on the other.

Walzer: Yes, [laughter] Dissent magazine’s is not exactly a popular audience. But it is a different kind of writing than the academic journals; you mostly write without footnotes, and you are making arguments without the requirement that you pay attention to the strongest possible alternative views.

Art of Theory: What are the challenges of writing for both groups? What are the benefits for your work?

Walzer: The chief benefit I think is learning to avoid fashionable academic jargon, the use of which makes your work accessible to (and of interest to) only a very, very small number of people.

If you think the subject of political theory is politics, then I think it’s both natural and right to aim at an audience of citizens, of the more politically engaged of your fellow citizens. And what I worry about in academic political theory is that, for many, the subject of political theory is political theory. You don’t read about politics; you read political theory, and then you write about political theory for your fellow political theorists.

I never wanted to do that, perhaps because Dissent and then The New Republic and the New York Review of Books offered me a different audience.

Art of Theory: Is it fair to say that, for you, the best political theory is informed by theoretical literature but applied to historical or contemporary political events?

Walzer: I think it’s reflecting from a distance, but not too great a distance, on the meaning of the politics of your contemporaries, which is what I think Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau were doing. They weren’t doing academic political theory; they weren’t part of an academy.

So, for a book like Just and Unjust Wars, it was very important to me to work the argument through historical examples, including World War II and Korea and Vietnam, which I had lived through. It was also important to address the book to those citizens engaged in arguing about war and to the officers in our armed forces.

For me the biggest success of the book came very early on when it was adopted as a text at West Point. It was adopted by a group of Vietnam veterans—West Point faculty on their second or third tour—and I don’t think they agreed with what I said about the war, but they had been troubled by the war. It made them uneasy in a way that made them receptive to the book’s arguments.

Art of Theory: You mentioned that Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau were writing for citizens, and one notices the clarity of presentation in reading their prose. Your work, perhaps because it addresses both professional and civic audiences, is also set apart by lucid prose. What are your thoughts on the connection between rhetoric and logic in political theory?

Walzer: I haven’t thought of myself as a conscious rhetorician. I guess the biggest influence on the way I write is, as for anyone else, what I read. The kind of people I read when I first was learning to write were not Hobbes and Locke, but Orwell, Camus, Ignazio Silone, writers of that sort, and a certain kind of public intellectual who were also novelists. I’ve never aspired to be a novelist, but I think a lot of my writing is modeled on the way they wrote. Irving Howe, the founder of Dissent, was also a very, very good writer and he was my first editor.

Art of Theory: You’ve said that your essay on the problem of dirty hands became famous because it was an example of, and these are your words, “philosophical incoherence.” Why is that, and how do think that the 40 years since its publication have affected that judgment?

Walzer: The argument of my piece on dirty hands, which is also the argument summed up in that phrase, is that sometimes it’s necessary in politics to do things that it’s wrong to do, which translates into the right thing to do being the wrong thing to do. That’s the incoherence.

What philosophers mostly believe is that the right thing to do is what, all things considered, is the right thing to do. The notion of getting your hands dirty implies that you’re doing something which is wrong and that’s what I was trying to get at in the article. You want political leaders who know that x is the wrong thing to do, because you want them to do it only in extremis. You want them to do it only at the last minute, when nothing else will work, and when there’s some looming disaster. It’s a kind of utilitarianism of the last moment.

You begin by rejecting the maxim “do justice even if the heavens fall,” and instead choose the maxim “do justice until the heavens are about to fall, and then do whatever you have to do to stop the heavens from falling.” You have to know that your actions at that last moment are something brutal, cruel, wrong. Otherwise you will do it too soon, and too often.

Art of Theory: Where do you think the problem of dirty hands stands now?

Walzer: Well, there’s a literature now. It is an ongoing disagreement, and it figured most recently in the debate on torture. There are people who say you need an absolute ban. But if the story about a bomb in an elementary school is true—if it’s not just a piece of political science fiction—then you want somebody who will do what’s necessary to stop the bomb from going off. So you want the ban, you want in principle for it to be absolute, and you want a politician who at the critical moment will take on the burden of guilt and do what it is wrong to do.

Then there are people who say never, even if the heavens do fall. I never quite have gotten my mind around that idea. I’ve never even believed that that’s what they actually believe.

Art of Theory: How did you become interested in just war theory? You’ve mentioned growing up during the war; was that formative in these concerns?

Walzer: I think it was. I was a little nerdish boy, and when I was 10 or 11 or 12 years old I wrote a little notebook of the history of World War II for family and for friends.

I learned to read from PM. PM was the left-wing daily in New York in the 40s, which had very, very good war coverage and beautiful maps.

So, that was very important, and for a Jewish kid growing up during World War II, that was the just war. You had to believe that defeating the Nazis was absolutely necessary and morally right.

And then I got really interested during Vietnam. I ran around the country arguing against the war. There was a kind of left-wing project to do community organizing against the war. It was an imitation of what SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) was doing in urban neighborhoods. I was co-chair of the Cambridge Neighborhood Committee on Vietnam, which canvassed against the war, house-to-house, and managed to get a statement opposing the war on the ballot of the city. We only got 40% of the vote, which was about the same as parallel efforts in Michigan, California, and a few other places. 40% was the average vote against the war.

But I gave a lot of speeches and I found myself using this language, the language of just war theory (though I had never studied just war theory): aggression, intervention, non-combatant immunity, and all of that. So, after it was all over, I started reading Catholic just war theory. And when I decided to write a book about it, since I had never been in the army, I spent five years reading military history and the memoirs of soldiers and novels about war written by former soldiers.

That’s what made the book possible. I couldn’t have written it with hypothetical examples. I needed this precisely because I hadn’t been a soldier. I got a college exemption during Korea and then I was too old for Vietnam, so I was never a draftee. I didn’t have to run away; I don’t know what I would have done with Vietnam. But I spent a lot of time trying to learn something about what war was like, talking to friends or veterans of World War II and Korea and Vietnam.

Art of Theory: Those examples seem to play a pretty important role in the book. I’m struck by how they’re employed; the story of Orwell, for instance, seeing the naked solider. The examples are striking, and they really make the argument resonant in a different way.

Walzer: In years when I was writing on just wars, I was involved with a group of philosophers in a very informal organization which we called SELPH: the Society for Ethical and Legal Philosophy. It was Rawls, Nozick, Tom Nagel, Tim Scanlon, Judy Thompson, Owen Fiss from Yale Law School, Charles Fried from Harvard Law School, and Ronnie Dworkin. That was my philosophical education, because I hadn’t had that kind of education at Harvard. I was doing the history of political thought.

They all used these invented examples—these weird science fiction examples—and I didn’t like that, partly because I wanted to write in a more concrete way. (I did it with Spheres of Justice, also. Examples of distributions are a little harder to find and formulate than examples of wars and battles, but the two books are argued in the same way.)

Art of Theory: Those debates about just wars are as relevant as they ever have been. Certainly the academic literature is still blooming on that question. New doctrines like “Responsibility to Protect” seem to be bringing up a lot of these old concerns. What do you think is the present status of just war theory? And where do you see it going?

Walzer: Well, it’s become an academic industry. When I was a graduate student, every graduate student in philosophy had to write something about punishment. Punishment was the issue on which you tested yourself. You had to write about deterrence and retribution and reparation. After a while every graduate student in philosophy was writing about abortion. Now, it’s almost as if just war—whom you can kill, mostly—is the issue.

I suppose I’m glad this has happened; it can only heighten awareness of these issues. I sometimes worry about the emphasis, because the subject of just war theory should be war, and increasingly the subject of just war theory is just war theory. These people are reading each other, and they’re not reading military history, or the memoirs of soldiers. They’re using these weird examples that don’t resonate with me.

There are some interesting controversies, but they are academic controversies. My book has become something of the orthodox account. These days, though, I really think something like the argument over humanitarian intervention is more important. It’s not easy to figure out what the criteria for humanitarian intervention should be. I initially thought it should just be crimes that shock the conscience of humankind, to use an old 19th century phrase; when you see a massacre in Cambodia or Rwanda, somebody should stop it. But I thought the intervention should just be aimed at stopping it. You go in, you stop it, and you get out and let them rebuild their own country.

But that doesn’t work. For a country that’s been devastated by genocide on the scale of Cambodia or Rwanda, if you go in and stop it, you’ve also got to help in the rebuilding of these societies, and we’re not very good at that.

So the responsibility to protect turns out to involve broader responsibilities, and we haven’t thought successfully about it. We don’t yet have a way of dealing with those broader responsibilities, either in theory or in practice.

Art of Theory: So how does it feel to be the orthodox account?

Walzer: [Laughter] It’s the only time I’ve been called orthodox. It was a bit of a shock at first for a man of the left!

Art of Theory: You wrote Spheres of Justice at a time when justice dominated the conversation among political philosophers, many of whom were a part of SELPH.

Walzer: Yes, though among ourselves, we called it the Society for the Elimination of Lousy Philosophy. [Laughter]

Art of Theory: A useful organization if ever one existed. [Laughter] Anyway, tell us a little bit about how that project came about.

Walzer: It had a double source.

There were the academic debates produced by John Rawls, and Rawls’s project began in the 50s. The first chapter of A Theory of Justice was circulating in mimeograph form when I was a graduate student. Then came his wonderful book, and it provoked a lively response.

The other reason was my own politics, the left politics of the 60s. We all thought we were going to change the world, so we had to know what to aim at.

Spheres of Justice is a contribution to that debate, which is still going on, and although I think there have been some quite good additions, it seems interest has faded a bit. There’s a book by Ian Shapiro, a book by Anne Phillips, a book by Iris Young; these were, I think, important books about distributive justice, but they came out when the intensity of the argument had somehow lessened. There were other issues, or people got tired, or the political opportunities disappeared.

Once again, I tried to write very concretely about particular social goods and how they are conceived, produced, and shared or divided.

Art of Theory: You’ve said that the early arguments for Spheres of Justice got worked out in a course that you taught with Robert Nozick.

Walzer: Yes, Bob and I were very good friends from when we were both at Princeton, and he began moving toward some kind of libertarian position. I don’t think he ever actually became interested in politics. He was driven by the arguments: the philosophical arguments and the attractiveness of what he thought was a position that could cross a lot of fields. I was already a good social democrat, but we talked a lot together, and we decided to give this course.

We organized it so that it wasn’t a soundbyte debate. It was much more serious. He would give two lectures laying out an argument, I would then respond with one lecture, and he could reply to my response. Then I would give two lectures and he would respond, followed by my reply, and so on. That’s the way we organized the semester.

I think it was the most work of any course I’ve ever given, even though I was only giving half of the lectures. His book—Anarchy, State, and Utopia—came out of that course, and years later my Spheres of Justice was based in part on those lectures and in part on an article in Dissent from around that time, which laid out the argument. There were maybe 120 to 130 students in the course from philosophy, economics, and politics. It was a much more mixed crowd than I would get in the Government Department.

After the lectures, Bob and I would play handball a couple of times per week, to work out and remain friends despite the disagreements.

Art of Theory: So how did Nozick, Rawls, and your other interlocutors respond to Spheres of Justice? Both personally and then in print, academically?

Walzer: Ronnie Dworkin published a quite brutal critique of the book in the New York Review of Books, and I think he spoke for some of them. Jack Rawls was never brutal, and I think in subsequent versions of his argument he was responsive to some of what I’d said and some of what Michael Sandel had said in criticism of his position. But Ronnie, not at all.

It’s true that there was a shift. When I was writing about war, I quite consciously imagined that the principles that should apply, both to the decision to go to war and to decisions about how to fight, were universal in character. They had to be, they have to be comprehensible across cultural boundaries because wars are fought across boundaries.

Insofar as I was looking for, I won’t say a foundation, but a way of talking about these human principles, I thought that basing them on human rights, on some minimalist conception of life and liberty, was the best way to go.

But when I came to write about distributive justice in particular societies, it seemed to me that the distribution of social goods had to depend on—and therefore in some sense be relative to—the meaning of those goods in the lives of the people among whom they were being distributed.

So the argument of Spheres of Justice was taken by some to be a relativist argument. I meant it to be relativist in that limited sense—relative to the meaning of the social goods—while the principle that distribution should be relative to the meaning of social goods was a universal principle. But I think Ronnie Dworkin just imagined I had never taken Philosophy 101 and didn’t get the basic argument.

And because I was talking about shared understandings and social meanings the way an anthropologist does, I think one of the differences between us was that Ronnie and Jack Rawls read psychology. Jack certainly read psychology and philosophy, and I read history and anthropology. So Dworkin’s accusation was that my relativism made social criticism impossible; which is the reason that I then wrote two books about social criticism.

Art of Theory: Social criticism has since been a major concern of yours. What do you think are the greatest challenges facing social critics today? What aspects of our political life do you think stand in most serious need of critique?

Walzer: When I was writing explicitly about social criticism, about my favorite social critics and my least favorite social critics, I thought what was crucial was what I called connection. A social critic had to be committed to the well-being of the society he was criticizing. Otherwise, why bother? He wasn’t climbing a mountaintop and wagging his finger at sinful humanity; he (or she) was engaged with the ideals, aspirations, and practices of a group of people who were his fellow citizens.

That connection should be apparent in what he wrote. Social criticism shouldn’t be a view from nowhere or a God’s eye view. There had to be some distance between the critic and the powers that be, but it didn’t have to be the distance that philosophers imagine. I thought social criticism worked best from close up and when it was being written by people like George Orwell, who is a model of this. He felt himself to be an English critic of England, and that was very important in his writing. That kind of criticism is consistent with Spheres of Justice, and that was my way of responding to Dworkin’s critique.

What most needs criticism in our society? Well, we have become an increasingly inegalitarian society in ways that are not minor anymore, and that actually threaten the health of our democracy. So that would be one critical focus of any intellectual who wants to engage with his fellow citizens.

Art of Theory: Let’s talk about In God’s Shadow. Your project is to examine biblical politics with a theorist’s eye. What does the theorist have to offer an understanding of scripture? And, conversely, what does scripture have to offer the political theorist?

Walzer: Well, first of all I should say that the conceit of the book is that I’m reading the Bible the way I read Rousseau’s Social Contract. And there’s some truth in that. But of course the texts are very different, because the Bible is read liturgically, by Christians and maybe Muslims also. We don’t read Rousseau that way. [Laughter] Even committed Communitarians don’t read Rousseau like that at a communal meeting.

So it’s not quite the same. Nevertheless, I did try to step back a little bit and read this text as if it were not exactly a theoretical text, but as if it were a book about politics.

One of the things that is going on in the contemporary religious revival is that people are once again looking to the Bible for instruction about how to live, and also even about how to act politically. You see this with American fundamentalists, and you see it among Jewish Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox.

One virtue of reading the Bible in the way I am reading it is in denying that those people have a monopoly on this text. You’re saying we can all look at it, and this is a political story. But what you discover when you read the Bible not liturgically is that it’s a book of books. There are many voices. There are quite strong disagreements precisely about politics.

What I wanted to do is describe the different voices and to argue that there is no authoritative political teaching. There is much you can learn because this is a political story, as you can learn much from the political story of the Greeks or the Romans or any modern state. This is 800 to 1,000 years of political history. There are regime changes, there are arguments about how Israel should be ruled and by whom. There are arguments about what political rulers should and shouldn’t do. So there’s much to learn, but there is no authoritative teaching. If you’re looking for the fundamental doctrine, there isn’t any.

Art of Theory: If the Bible isn’t a book with a political teaching, is it a book of political lessons?

Walzer: I think there are things to learn, yes. It is also a book of moral teachings. I was reading it as a political theorist, but you can also read the Bible as moral philosophy. There, I think, you might find not a single voice—because the priestly voices and the prophetic voices are quite different—but you can find a concept of morality that is relatively stable across the books, and that is quite powerful. I say something about that in the book because there, politics is involved in morality, or morality in politics. But that wasn’t my focus in the book. So if you’re looking to learn something, I think the moral lessons might come more quickly than the political ones.

Art of Theory: Beyond history and anthropology, which you mentioned earlier, what sources outside political theory provide you with inspiration?

Walzer: Well, I read a lot of political journalism because I am interested in politics and I am the editor of a political magazine. I read history a lot, and I read some anthropology, partly under the influence of Clifford Geertz, who was my colleague here and a good friend. I read political theory less, I think, than I read what my friends write, or what my former students write. I read philosophy that is simpler and less abstract than others might.

I read poetry. I think reading poetry is important for anyone who writes. And I read some fiction: I read quite a number of murder mysteries which are oddly relaxing. And I read novels, especially political novels like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which was quite wonderful.

Art of Theory: So what about the career of being a theorist do you wish that you could know when you started?

Walzer: What I call the “political theory license” isn’t something I saw immediately or understood. The discovery that I could write an article on some issue that interested me, and I could publish it in Dissent, or I could add 25 footnotes and muddy the prose a bit [laughter] and publish it in academic form, was a surprise.

I started writing for Dissent very early. In the 50s or very early 60s the academic world was expanding, so when I went for my first job interview at Princeton, they were willing to read my articles in Dissent. I had a dissertation for them to look at, but I didn’t have any published articles, and they were willing to read what I had written in this non-refereed political magazine and make a judgement about it.

So maybe from early on I did realize that I could move back and forth between these two worlds. But that’s what I think theorists can do, and should do. Graduate students are writing dissertations that have to be, in some sense, for academics to read. But when those dissertations are turned into books, I hope that those authors will imagine that the readers looking over the shoulder are not all of them political theorists.

Art of Theory: That experience perhaps raises the question how the discipline has changed since you began your career.

Walzer: Well, the academic world is a very rough place these days. There aren’t a lot of jobs waiting for the graduate students who are going to be looking for them. So that’s a major change because, as I said, in the universe in which I was trained, everybody got a job. Every graduate student I knew very quickly got jobs—jobs were being produced as fast as PhDs.

In political theory, there’s also been a major shift from the history of political theory to a commitment to make arguments about political issues, under the influence, I think, of Rawls and the philosophical movement that he began. Quentin Skinner is an example of a counter-tendency in the field, because he is writing a much more fine-grained history of political theory than what we were doing in the 50s.

He is trying to put a thinker like Hobbes in his context, which means to read all of the forgotten people who were writing about politics around Hobbes in his time, and to insist that the only way of understanding Hobbes is within this context. The tendency of philosophical readers, the ones by whom I was influenced, is to treat Leviathan as if it had just been written by a candidate for tenure at Harvard University, and you want to know whether the book is right. [Laughter] Those are radically different ways of reading Hobbes. I think both of them are now in full flower.

Art of Theory: What do you think makes for excellence in the study of politics?

Walzer: I would say a very concrete engagement with the political issues of your own time. I would emphasize concrete. This is self-serving, but political theory should always be written with examples. You should try to tell your readers what would it would mean to these people in this place in this time if your ideas were accepted.

Art of Theory: Describe your workplace and your writing habits. When you sit down to write, what’s the process?

Walzer: For a long time, I wrote on yellow legal pads by hand. Everything. I corrected in the margins and between the lines and gave it to a typist. At a certain point in the late 80s or 90s, I began to write on the computer. When you write on the computer you revise endlessly, which you can’t do on the yellow pad because there’s a limit of space. You revise endlessly, again and again and again. I don’t think it comes out all that different in the end. I now write entirely on the computer and my handwriting has become virtually unreadable because I do it so little. When I edit articles for Dissent, I do it all on the computer.

The Institute for Advanced Studies is a wonderful place to work. Even though I am retired, I still have a part-time secretary down the hall. They are very good to their emeriti here. At Harvard I worked at home. I wrote Just and Unjust Wars at home in my study. But now, I read at home, and I do all my writing on that machine [points to computer].

Art of Theory: What’s next for you? What’s on your horizon?

Walzer: I’m giving a set of Stimson lectures at Yale in April. This will be a little book, and the working title is What Happened to National Liberation. I’m looking at three cases: India, Israel, and Algeria. You have three national liberation movements which succeeded in producing independent states: India and Israel in 1947 and 1948, and Algeria 15 years later. These national liberation movements in all three countries were leftist and secular.

Roughly 30 years later, each of these secular states was challenged by a revived militant religious movement. Three different religions, but on roughly the same time schedule. So I’m asking what happened. Why wasn’t the liberationist project able to sustain itself? Maybe it will sustain itself in the end, but these are very powerful challenges to the secular state.

“What happened?” is the question I’m going to ask, and it’s really a question about the secular left. What are the problems and the prospects of cultural reproduction for the secular left?