The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century and Interpretation to Social Criticism By Michael Walzer.

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One of the strangest and saddest specimens of social criticism in American history was a short-lived publication called “Osawatomie”, the journal of the Weather Underground. An editorial, “Where We Stand,” announced in stupefying prose the group’s aim — “we are building a communist organization to be part of the forces which build a revolutionary communist party to lead the working class to seize power and build socialism” — and its discovery that “Marxism-Leninism is the science of revolution, the revolutionary ideology of the working class, our guide to the struggle.” The Weather collective exhorted the rest of the American left to follow the group’s example, to “begin with the resources and lessons from the triumph of proletarian revolution in many countries and with the great victories of national liberation.”

What makes this episode lamentable rather than merely ludicrous is that the Weather Underground was the organizational — if not spiritual or political — successor to Students for a Democratic Society. SDS had also begun by announcing where it stood, but the Port Huron Statement remains as vivid and relevant as “Osawatomie” is dull, dated, and doctrinaire. Much of the reason for this difference is surely the determination of the Statement’s authors to “speak American” (Tom Hayden), to “find a way to talk about socialism in an American accent” (Robert Ross). It begins:

“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world; the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people — these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.

As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss.”

Immediately the source of the Statement’s perennial appeal is clear. These were fellow citizens speaking, not cadre. And they were speaking: of generous illusions, widely shared, followed by painful disillusion; they were not intoning ideological cabalisms or shouting obscure slogans.

The Port Huron Statement is an example of what Michael Walzer, in “Interpretation and Social Criticism” (Harvard University Press) and “The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century” (Basic Books), calls “internal criticism”: it “challenges the leaders, the conventions, the. . . practices of a particular society. . . in the name of values recognized and shared in that same society.” An effective critic, Walzer argues, is likely to be a member of the community he or she criticizes, formed within and by it, intimate with its traits and traditions, serious about its morality — more serious, in some important respect, than the community’s leadership or even member ship. The community’s dereliction in that respect will arouse indignation, sometimes rage, but not radical hostility, much less rejection. Disappointed but not disaffected, the critic will stand a little apart, yet not altogether outside. “Critical distance,” Walzer writes, “is measured in inches.”

Even when criticism is fundamental, directed at the social structure rather than at some specific policy, the critic must be able to connect it with common values and aspirations, to interpret the history and mores of the community in a way that calls the legitimacy of the structure into question. To appeal directly to universal principles that have little apparent purchase or resonance in the moral history of a particular society can only evoke incomprehension and defensiveness. But will such insider criticism have sufficient bite? Can every — can any — society’s standards be relied on to generate radical criticism of itself? Won’t critics frequently need to invent or import principles not available, even implicitly, in the moral culture of their own society? Most of Walzer’s writing throughout the last decade — in the books under review, in “Spheres of Justice” (1983), and in two essays for the journal “Political Theory”, “Philosophy and Democracy” (1981) and “Liberalism and the Art of Separation” (1984) — has been addressed to one or another version of these crucial questions.

“The Company of Critics” discusses eleven representative (more or less) twentieth-century social critics. Walzer claims that each of them, to the extent he or she did useful work, was an internal, connected critic, and to the extent any faltered or consistently struck a false note, was disconnected, excessively detached. It is a skillful demonstration — in some cases (Bourne, Silone, Orwell, Breytenbach), relatively straightforward; in others (Camus, de Beauvoir Marcuse, Foucault), more problematic; in at least one (Gramsci) a tour de force — as well as a richly textured narrative: Walzer’s ability to individuate each of these figures even while fitting the grid of his analytic categories over their work is remarkable. Some of his local judgments are debatable: Julien Benda seems to me a less valuable critic, and Marcuse a more valuable one, than Walzer allows. But the general argument is persuasive. Walzer has successfully located a pattern, a “standard form” of social criticism, in his subjects’ careers: “the identification of public pronoun cements and respectable opinion as hypocritical, the attack upon actual behavior and institutional arrangements, the search for core values (to which hypocrisy is always a clue), the demand for everyday life in accordance with the core.”

This description may seem unexceptionable but unilluminating until contrasted with a different and in fact more conventional view of the critic, as outsider. The radically detached critic, according to Walzer,

“breaks loose from his local and familial world. . . escapes with much attendant drama, detaches himself from all emotional ties, steps back so as to see the world with absolute clarity, studies what he sees...discovers universal values as if for the first time, finds these values embodied in the movement of the oppressed (class, nation, gender. . .), decides to support the movement and to criticize its enemies, who are very often people such as he once was [and] attaches himself.. . sometimes negotiating, sometimes not, about the terms of the attachment.”

This is a stereotype, but plausibly derived from the theory and practice of two of the most influential groups of social critics in the twentieth century: the Bolsheviks and the mid-century French intellectuals, notably Sartre, associated with Les Temps Modernes. Part of Walzer’s purpose is to deflate the prestige of this ideal — and in consequence, of its practitioners. It is, necessarily, a corollary purpose, incidental to vindicating his own preferred model, and some readers may wish Walzer had more fully acknowledged the attractions (or temptations) of outsider criticism. Still, most will, I suspect, find his deft citation of Gramsci’s dizzying euphemism about the Bolshevik intelligentsia — “Having thus performed its intellectual apprenticeship it returns to its own country and compels the people to an enforced awakening, skip ping several historical stages in the process” — as well as his reference to Sartre’s all-too-human refusal to criticize Third World “liberation” movements, more than sufficient to illustrate the dangers of radical detachment.

Walzer has rather more to say about the alleged dangers of insufficient detachment. He defends Martin Buber’s renunciation of the cause of Arab-Jewish binationalism after 1948; Silone’s abandonment of Marxism for a sympathetic exploration of “the heresies and utopias of peasant consciousness”; Orwell’s insistence, still unacceptable to the cosmopolitan English left, that “popular culture.. . is not wholly estranged from the hegemonic culture of English capitalism”; and Camus’s futile but honorable advocacy of federal status for Algeria. Again, by and large, persuasively. And part of his defense addresses the misgivings mentioned earlier, about the adequacy of internal standards. Surely the social critic needs, if not abstract, universal principles, at any rate enough moral imagination to recognize the existence of other societies’ common values, and then enough moral courage to insist that one’s own society accord them due respect. Doesn’t the intimacy Walzer endorses militate against such recognition and such insistence? Walzer himself formulates this objection well:

“Engagement always involves a loss — not total but serious enough — of distance, critical perspective, objectivity, and so on. The sophist, critic, publicist, or intellectual must address the concerns of his fellow citizens, try to answer their questions, weave his arguments into the fabric of their history. He must, indeed, make himself a fellow citizen and then he will be unable to avoid entirely the moral and even the emotional entanglements of citizenship. He may hold fast to the philosophical truths of natural law, distributive justice, or human rights, but his political arguments are most likely to look like some makeshift version of those truths, adapted to the needs of a particular people: from the standpoint of the original position, provincial; from the standpoint of the ideal speech situation, ideological.” (“Philosophy and Democracy”)

The best defense against chauvinism, Walzer replies, is not a search for universal principles, for “philosophical truths,” but a deeper appropriation of particularity. For societies as for individuals, the secure possession of a specific identity is what enables the recognition of otherness. A subject fully aware of his/its constitutive history will, faced with others, imaginatively reiterate, will ascribe a similar (but not identical) history and sense of self to them. Reiteration is the form of morality underlying Buber’s persistent critique of Jewish messianism, Orwell’s apparently eccentric combination, of patriotism and inter nationalism, and Camus’s complicated but uncompromised position on the Algerian War. Here and elsewhere in “The Company of Critics”, Walzer is chiefly (not, of course, exclusively) concerned with the integrity of his subjects’ practice rather than with the correctness of their politics: a distinction that requires considerable scrupulousness on the part of both author and reader to maintain, even provisionally. Perhaps inevitably, those who reject Walzer’s political judgments will be unappeasably suspicious of his moral psychology. That would be unfortunate; “reiteration,” far from being an ad hoc, apologetical construction, is an original and suggestive formula, available to criticism of any degree of rigor.

There is, in any case, no alternative to some such conception. For there are no abstract, formal principles of distributive justice capable of immediate and universal application within and between societies. As Walzer has long argued, most fully in “Spheres of Justice” and with extraordinary economy in “Interpretation and Social Criticism”, moral argument is always, beyond a certain point, interpretive, a matter of elaborating (and occasionally revising) the meaning of some social good or practice. Formal definitions, however ingenious, invariably require historical completion. The minimal code of near-universally recognized rights that underwrites international law is too thin to support a dense moral culture; only a shared history — which usually means a national history — of moral discourse, political conflict, literary achievement can generate values of sufficient thickness and depth. And what may appear to be genuine philosophical invention, e.g., the principle of equal justice under law, is in general better under stood, Walzer convincingly suggests, as inclusion, as the extension, through social criticism and political conflict, of old principles to new groups.

“It is.. . impossible.. . to step outside our skins — the traditions, linguistic and other, within which we do our thinking and self-criticism— and…to escape from the [limits] of one’s time and place, the ‘merely conventional’ and contingent aspects of one’s life. . .” I chanced on this passage from the writings of Richard Rorty — which nicely summarizes Walzer’s moral epistemology — during the composition of this review. There is no intersection, as far as I know, between the work of these two men. So it is noteworthy that, in order to answer what is probably the most common objection to his moral theory, Walzer enlists a metaphor of which Rorty has also made memorable use: culture — in this case, moral culture — as conversation.

According to his critics, “the idea of a shared moral tradition cannot do the work Walzer wants; if society is divided on some issue, the tradition runs out where the dispute begins.” In which case, “politics must. . . replace justice” and “justice all but disappears for us. We are left with the politics of selfishness” (Ronald Dworkin). Here is the familiar insistence that only secure philosophical foundations can prevent intellectual and moral chaos. In “Interpretation and Social Criticism” Walzer acknowledges that indeterminacy “prompts, not without reason, a certain philosophical apprehension. And from this there follows the whole elaborate apparatus of detachment and objectivity, whose purpose is not to facilitate criticism but to guarantee its correctness.” In response, he tells the Talmudic story of Rabbi Joshua, who rebuked God for attempting to intervene in a rabbinical dispute with an authoritative interpretation of the Law, which He had irrevocably committed to fallible humanity.

“[Moral] argument implies common possession, but common possession does not imply agreement. There is a tradition, a body of moral knowledge; and there is this group of sages, arguing. There isn’t anything else. No discovery or invention can end the argument; no “proof” takes precedence over the (temporary) majority of sages. That is the meaning of, “It is not in heaven.”

There is no guarantor, no guarantee.

Still, the renunciation of the absolute — like the achievement of maturity — exacts an aesthetic and emotional price in exchange for intellectual and practical gain. Connected criticism has a sober coloring. Concerned not to cut himself off from his fellow-citizens, the internal critic will be tempted to moderate, if not his indignation, then at least the expression of it: his rhetoric. And sometimes — usually — he will be right to do so, to set political effectiveness above literary effect.

But indignation is not always manageable. And however conscientiously the critic tries to reiterate, to reconstruct the moral history of those in other communities, it will always be difficult for him to give their suffering due weight. We are properly skeptical of the habitually enraged critic; but we are also disappointed on occasion — and they may be the most important occasions — by the invariably judicious one. Perhaps this is why, though I largely share Walzer’s political positions, I have seldom been profoundly moved by his own social criticism — enlightened, yes, but rarely inspired. The young Kafka wrote: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?” Walzer is, alas, far too polite ever to have hammered on anyone’s skull. Other connected critics have done so, it is true, including same of those Walzer discusses. But if the connection is not to be endangered, the tact required is extraordinary and the critic’s inhibitions will therefore be considerable.

Kafka went on: “What we must have are books that come upon us like ill-fortune and distress us deeply. . . . A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” I have often exclaimed with pleasure while reading Walzer’s graceful prose, but never with distress. Inside every citizen of a state responsible for so much misery in the rest of the world there is, one must assume, a frozen sea. In normal times, for ordinary purposes, the temperate, scrupulously nuanced, moderately forceful criticism of the typical connected critic — of Walzer himself— is appropriate. But sometimes maximum intensity — an axe, a charge of verbal explosives, a burst of white heat — is required, whether for immediate effect or in helpless, furious witness. A sense of the simultaneous urgency and futility of much social criticism — i.e., the tragic sense — is a necessary part of the critical temperament. To resist this sense is the critic’s everyday responsibility. To give in to it, to risk excess, loss of dignity, disconnection, may also, on occasion, be his duty.

In the book’s introduction, Walzer speculates, troublingly: “It may be that my list of critics, arranged in rough chronological order, tells a story: of the rise and fall, the making and unmaking, of critical connection. The revolt of the masses opened certain possibilities, seized upon in exemplary fashion, it might be said, by writers like Ignazio Silone and George Orwell. But a long series of defeats has closed off these possibilities. The critic is alone again.. . deprived of any close relation to an audience, driven to recover authority by establishing his distance. Silone and Orwell now look like figures from a faraway past — modern figures seen from a postmodern age. Maybe.” Though he disavows this interpretation of his narrative and promises reassurance, little or none is forthcoming.

Though engaging, “The Company of Critics” is also a little bit exasperating. Walzer’s fidelity to democratic socialist values is attractive, and his strictures against Marcuse and Foucault for their infidelities are just. But he doesn’t seem to appreciate as fully as they did the extent to which contemporary culture threatens to make those values, along with the forms of political community in which they might flourish, obsolete. The shared values and social meanings to which internal criticism appeals are durable, no doubt, once internalized. But they must be internalized anew by each generation. Currently, their trans mission to many, perhaps most, of the young is radically weakened and degraded. To point out only the most superficial of causes: political socialization depends in part on the vivid impressions associated with communal symbols, rituals, festivals, narratives. But after several formative years of Saturday-morning television, few children retain the capacity for responding deeply to most of the relatively plain images and stories that make up the national political tradition (such as it is). That is a speculative claim, but anyone to whom it seems hyperbolic should consult Tom Engelhardt’s chilling essay “The Shortcake Strategy” (in “Watching Television,” edited by Todd Gitlin, Pantheon Books).

True, Marcuse got overexcited about this sort of thing. There is no excuse for calling it, or even a society full of such phenomena, “totalitarian.” But Walzer gets underexcited. The “long series of defeats” he refers to means, presumably, political defeats: fascism and Stalinism; the failure of labor-based parties to gain state power; the inability of workers and consumers to form effective, permanent, democratic organizations. But the creation of contemporary American culture has also entailed a long series of defeats, with effects no less insidious. Neither set of defeats, political or cultural, is as yet irreversible; energetic, connected criticism remains the responsibility of intellectuals. Still, at certain haunted moments, “The Company of Critics” looks — to paraphrase its author —like a modern book seen from a postmodern age.


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George Scialabba