success of right-wing populist parties across much of Western Europe and North
America in recent years may constitute a crisis for liberalism, but it offers
opportunities for social-democratic reforms. Yet what is social democracy?
book, I consider the answer that Michael Walzer – one of the world’s most
important political thinkers – has provided over the last several decades. I
argue that one of Walzer’s major contributions is to couple the argument for
equality with that for cultural pluralism and diversity, suggesting that social
democracy can be understood only in the context of a particular society’s set
of social meanings if it is to achieve reforms that are meaningful to their
intended beneficiaries. Egalitarian politics must start, Walzer argues, from
interpretation of a society’s deepest commitments, achieving equality by
pointing to gaps between norm and practice or inconsistency between different
norms to which a community appears to be committed.
means that, for Walzer, any progressive politics must be situated in the
history of its own society and that egalitarian political theories must engage
in anthropological and cultural interpretation. Applying this insight to
Walzer’s own work, I situate his thought in the intellectual environment of
post-war leftist politics in New York, and especially of Dissent
magazine. I show that Walzer’s writing seeks to avoid the specialization of
much contemporary academic political theory and philosophy, instead seeking to
encourage the revitalization of public intellectual magazines of the
Walzer’s political theory ranges over a huge array of topics – from justice in war and humanitarian intervention, through distributive justice and multiculturalism, to the political significance of religion. In examining his writing on these topics, I suggest that the basis of Walzer’s worldview is the claim that human communities construct the values that give meaning to their lives, and that this thesis constitutes a crucial challenge to philosophical attempts to construct universal theories that seek to apply throughout the world. This makes him one of the most important challengers to cosmopolitan attempts to construct theories of justice of global scope.
J. Toby Reiner is Associate Professor of Political Science at Dickinson College. His new book, Michael Walzer, is now available from Polity.