The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions
Yale University Press, 2015, 172 pp., $26
Once upon a time, a not-so-very-old story went, there was religion. A powerful phenomenon in its time, it had since become tamed in the cool light of reason and evolved, according to the generous of spirit and historically minded, into an intermittently helpful and mostly harmless handmaiden to the great projects of secularism and modernity as they barreled their way along the train tracks of history. There were, to be sure, some who tried to hop off the train, or even to attempt to turn it around. These were called “fundamentalists”, rear-guard atavists who were to be pitied and, when really necessary, put in their place.
This culturally single-lane story of inevitable modernist secularism is in retrospect so unconnected from reality that one can hardly believe how commonplace it was—and occasionally still is—in Western elite circles, where the claims of religious actors were instinctively translated into something “real”—which is to say, into the bloodless and pliant language of economics, political science, or social psychology.
But it just doesn’t work. Observe our world today. In looking at the vast mess sprawling from western China through Central and South Asia, from Turkey to Sudan, and from Iran to Algiers, the salience of Islam is inescapable. Islam and Christianity alike thrive in sub-Saharan Africa. Christianity holds sway in the Americas, regularly in Evangelical and Pentecostal dispensation, and, in the Orthodox, is nearly as omnipresent in Russia these days, as well as in much of Eastern Europe. In Israel, traditional Judaism in its various forms is as powerful as ever. If one allows for non-Abrahamic and non-deistic forms of religion, most of Asia counts as well. Note that religion of one kind or another is alive and kicking not just in traditional societies, but also in societies that look modern—indeed in societies whose political and legal institutions are paragons of what Weber called formal rationality. Religious commitment and passion, whatever one thinks of them, are powerful political forces that must be reckoned with. The biggest global exceptions—and they are only partial exceptions—are Western Europe and slices of bicoastal North America.
To say that the overturning of Western modernization theory came as a surprise is a hefty understatement. However, it affected different zones of professional responsibility differently. In Washington, the return of religion transformed the character of U.S. foreign policy concerns (in American domestic politics, religion was present from the beginning and, though often garbed in secular threads, has never gone away). That return first announced itself with the Iranian Revolution, and began to scream its presence on September 11, 2001. Since then the U.S. government, at least, has struggled to make sense of a crazy quilt of religious conflicts and ideals that seemed to come out of nowhere (and the emphasis is on seemed).
One source of the confusion, as Peter Berger has pointed out, is the conflation of secularization with secularism, of the process through which all have been made to pass with the ideology that promotes and celebrates it. They are by no means identical. Modern societies, at least, have been pluralized and institutionally differentiated, so that religious institutions no longer dominate political and all social aspects of national life. That is secularization. Secularism as an ideology, in its purest form, is not a description of a process but an adjuration to completely replace religious institutions in society. In its totalist, normative form it becomes as creedal as any religion, but one supposedly defined by what it is not (and the emphasis is on supposedly).
Many observers over the years have tried to parse this distinction in a variety of settings, the result being a story of many pieces told from many angles. A new and welcome addition is the latest work of one of our foremost political theorists, Michael Walzer, by now venerable, yet fresh and engaging as ever. The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, a slim, thought-provoking book, originating in Walzer’s Stimson Lectures at Yale, defines its angle by examining the ways in which avowedly secular national liberation movements have found themselves in due course unexpectedly challenged by the very religious groups whose apparent weakness enabled the liberators’ success. Trotsky’s dustbin of history, it turns out, is really a magic box with a false bottom.
Walzer probes his angle in his customary display of wide reading fused with liberal thinking at its best—genuinely open to discussion and disagreement, principled yet non-dogmatic, mixing intellectual acuity with human sympathy, alive, but not in thrall to, irony and contradiction, committed to decent action, clear thinking, and illuminated by equally clear prose. To read Walzer is to admire him, whether or not one agrees with him, a rare civilizing experience these days.
Early on Walzer clarifies his terms. What do we mean by “national liberation” relative to other forms of political action? Liberation movements, he writes, first, “aim to achieve political equality with, rather than a dominant position over, other nations, and, second, they aim to liberate their own nation from long-standing traditions of authoritarianism and passivity—indeed from its own historic culture.” Liberation movements, as the word implies, move. They aim to head somewhere—toward the future. They are not about the dreary business of replacing one oligarchy with another, as was so much of premodern politics.
The “paradox” of Walzer’s title is that “the old ways must be repudiated and overcome, but [they] are cherished by many of the men and women whose ways they are”, and they come, over time, to challenge and even seek to displace, the liberation movements that have allowed them, now free of colonial rule, to flourish. Walzer looks in particular at three places and their stories: Algeria, India, and Israel, where religious forces that seemed permanently subdued and subsumed by secular nationalism came back to challenge it.
In all three places, he notes, religion continued to be a force in everyday life, not only as a vestige of earlier times, but because “nationalist leaders often found religions useful for their most immediate political purposes: sustaining the unity of the anticolonial struggle in the new state.” Yet all the liberationist leaders assumed that religion would sooner or later pass away, or adopt such new and attenuated forms so as to amount to the same thing. “Even the leaders of these movements, when they exercised political power, did so with a sure sense that they knew what was best for their backward and often recalcitrant peoples.” This was consciousness-raising, before the term was coined and became popular decades later, twinned with a conviction in the false consciousness of the human objects of liberation.
Yet when religion reappeared, it wasn’t of the old-time kind: It was “militant, ideological and politicized . . . [and] modern even in its antimodernism.” Whence the appeal? A new Islam in Algeria, a new Judaism in Israel, and a new Hinduism in India connect “the liberated people to their own past; they provide a sense of belonging and stability in a rapidly changing world. . . . [T]hey also provide recognizable, even familiar ‘others’ as objects of fear or hate—who can be blamed for all that has gone wrong since the day of liberation.” As the new, consciously constructed rituals of national liberation wore thin, religious rituals and practices reasserted their centuries-old suasion in navigating the human condition.
Appeals to neo-Marxist materialist understandings of religious revival don’t work, Walzer astutely notes, because “without [their populist] appeal the religious revival would be of no use to Brahmins, capitalists, and patriarchs.” People are not attracted to religion because of any links to some imagined materialist substructure. Marxists like Perry Anderson, Walzer observes, tend to abandon their own materialist footing in favor of softer arguments: “Insofar as [the liberators] are nationalists . . . they cannot achieve these goals without mobilizing their own nation, and in practice that means appealing to blood ties, gut feelings, and irrational beliefs. The liberators imitate the believers they hope to defeat.”
Of course for Marxists this is a bad thing. Why? “The central claim of the Marxist account, with which many liberal philosophers would agree”, writes Walzer, edging up to a by now well-seasoned autobiographical reflection, “is this: parochialism is parochialism, whether it calls itself national or religious. . . . By contrast, the universalism of the alternative account derives from internationalist commitments, which are based on social classes and economic interest rather than on nations and religions.” Yet appealing as the cosmopolitan vision is—and certainly was to a younger Michael Walzer—he accepts that it failed,
and we need to reflect for a moment on the failure of the cosmopolitan revolutionaries—and on the success, however qualified, of national liberation. Marx may have been right about the importance of class interest, but was certainly wrong about the relative appeal of class-based and nation-based politics. Foreign rule was everywhere experienced as a form of national oppression, in whose miseries all social classes shared, and opposition to foreign rule cut across class lines.
There is a larger point here—that materialism works with a misleading picture of the human beings it seeks to liberate. Central to that humanity, to our fundamental sense of who we are, are our primal identities that, in turn, regularly link us to another anchor in our world—namely, transcendence. People stand on the earth but their heads are in the sky, and so too there is a middle conceptual term between the primordial and the transcendent—between blood and God—and that is the civic, the public square. Indeed, the national liberationists of Walzer’s tale were all committed to creating states that would include citizens not part of the national group (Indian Muslims, Algerian Berbers, Israeli Arabs). As a result, he says,
it makes little sense to claim that religious zealotry in Israel today follows naturally from the nationalism of the Labor Zionists. It follows instead, as it does in India, from the democracy that the Labor Zionists created and then from their failure to produce a strong and coherent secular culture to go with that democracy. The zealots represent the return of what was incompletely ‘negated.’
So democratic civic life, known only to liberal nationalisms, gives rise to the antithesis of the liberal founders. Why is that? Because, as Walzer has powerfully argued for years, the best and most efficacious moral and political arguments are ones that “derive from or connect with the inherited culture of the people who need to be convinced.”
This is what the liberationists never squared up. They were nationalists, but nationalists of such a progressive cast of mind that they “imagined that they were struggling toward a single universal vision, with minor variations reflecting national/cultural difference.” Yet, as Walzer shows, “Particular engagements with particular cultures and histories . . . produce particular visions of secularism and modernity.” This means that “modern, secular liberation is ‘negotiated’ in each nation, in each religious community” and “a highly differentiated universe is the necessary outcome. . . . Traditionalist worldviews can’t be negated, abolished or banned; they have to be engaged.” In short, liberal nationalist elites cannot launch a nation out of its own culture, no matter how deeply they believe in their own version of universalism.
That being the case, three questions need to be answered: How did national liberation ever make itself central? How did it forfeit its hegemony in such a relatively brief period? And what’s gone wrong with the secular democracy that was either the liberationists’ base (in Israel and India) or its aspiration (in Algeria)?
The short answer to the first question concerns the artificial condensation powers of colonialism. France for Algeria, and Britain for Israel and for India, furnished the stimulus for national liberation at a moment in history when secularism aroused more passion for its being still relatively novel. But the essence of the historical arc is that, as Walzer writes, “Liberation cannot succeed, hegemony cannot be sustained, by negation alone: that is the beginning of the answer to all three questions. . . . Obviously there isn’t a single universal equilibrium”, Walzer continues, so that, as much as secular nationalists wished to reform and subordinate religion, what ended up happening is that the cultural power of religion in all three cases brought about “the reform of liberation.”
So religion needs to be engaged, “collected, translated, incorporated into the culture of the new.” Walzer is interested in India’s engagement in and around Hinduism and Algeria’s dance with Islam, but his intellectual drive seems most intense when talking about Israel and Judaism. Only when nationalists operating in a secular zone of their own making engage Judaism, he argues, “can traditional Judaism be pulled apart, its most important features—laws and maxims, ceremonies and practices, historical and fictional narratives—critically appraised. And only then can those features be accepted, or rejected, or revised; only then can they become the subject of ongoing argument and negotiation.” This process Walzer conceives as a never-to-be-completed conversation; in this richly liberal vision, the desired outcome is “not any single or final balance of acceptance of rejection”, but spirited yet civil argumentation, moving onward without end.
This liberal commitment to argument requires, in the end, no small amount of courage, because its inherent openness makes guessing its outcome impossible. Take for instance, the liberation of women as an enterprise of engaged discussion with religious tradition. Walzer writes:
The critical engagement with religious beliefs and practices is liberating in a new way: now the end is open, radically uncertain—or, better, there are many different engagements and many different, always, temporary outcomes. The value and attractiveness of the different outcomes depends on the stamina and energy of the men and women committed to national liberation.
The tricky part is getting the people who see it all as the word of God, to be interpreted only by authorized interpreters in authorized ways, to accept being engaged by those who don’t see it that way. Tricky, but likely necessary, as they might be the ones most likely to retain the stamina and energy required to fashion the outcome. By and large, after all, they are not liberals who, as some wag once said, often cannot even manage to take their own side in an argument.
Walzer’s analysis and proposals are attractive as always—more so if your intellectual roots are close to his. And yet as I read his book I felt that something deeper and more cutting—even more angular—was missing. He doesn’t seem to see, or at least doesn’t engage, the facets and arguments within the antagonists, and in every case there are many. In the Israeli case, Walzer doesn’t reckon with the deep differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, or between the Haredim who reject Zionism ideologically (even as they work with it functionally) and the Religious Zionists who see themselves as the true inheritors of the Zionist Revolution. And this latter difference generates some interpretive gravity that renders Walzer’s apparatus too light to sustain the explanatory weight he would rest on it.
The paradox of liberation is not just that the old ways are cherished by the people whom the liberators seek to set free; it goes deeper than that. Secularism, certainly secular revolution, is not a transparent visage of the plain sense of things. It is a chapter in the history of the pursuit of ultimacy that we in the modern world call religion. The revolution in fact must rely on the very cultural sources it seeks to overcome.
Looking at Zionism (the case I know best), secular Zionism was of course a revolution against the path that Jewish history had taken in millennia of exile, but it was acutely dialectical. It was no simple casting off; rather it was a recasting, a reworking of the tradition—a reinterpretation whose shape and form came out of deep currents and recesses in the tradition itself.
For instance, Zionism spoke openly of the “redemption of the land”, acutely aware of the religious overtones it was invoking. It did so not just out of rhetorical-tactical cleverness, but because the Zionists sought to create a new Judaism on the embers of the old. By draining the traditional religious terms of their transcendent reference, they were able to harness the rhetorical and spiritual power of religious language to their enterprise, and in so doing to argue—often persuasively—that while they were breaking with rabbinic Judaism, they were reconnecting to its original pre-exilic form in which people, faith, and land were unified. That gave them the superior claim to be Judaism’s rightful heir.
The use of religious language rested on the traditional backgrounds of most of the Labor Zionists of the pre- and early-State periods. At the same time, their outnumbered junior partners, the Religious Zionists, eventually came to see themselves as capable of pursuing large-scale programs within the framework of Zionist politics. And so when, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in the 1970s, which discredited the Labor establishment and left whispers of apocalypse hanging in the air, new generations of Religious Zionists decided to lay hold of the Zionist movement as a whole, and took the religious language that Labor Zionism had made into a functional tool for a political program and re-infused it with its classical religious meaning. “Redemption of the land”, now meant land purchases, or seizures, and prosaic acts of settlement building under the auspices of the secular Israeli state that would themselves presage the very messianic redemption dreamed of for generations.
Not only were Religious Zionists re-enchanting the national enterprise—but precisely because of the phase of disenchantment that had gone before—the re-enchantment now had special power. The recharging of the language of the national narrative became part of an electrical recharging of the Zionist project, and indeed, for believers, of all human history. The lesson seems to be that if secularists use religion instrumentally, they are very likely to become instruments of a religious revival whose energies derive from the secular refashioning of religious ideas and symbols toward modernizing ends. So Walzer seems to get the first wave of the dialectical relationship, but perhaps not so much the second—and, for all we know, the third and fourth to come.
The fundamental paradox of liberation and illiberalism at work within liberation is rooted deep in the story of self-determination itself, which, as Eric D. Weitz put it in the title of an important essay earlier this year in the American Historical Review, is the tale of “how a German Enlightenment idea became the slogan of national liberation and human rights.” So, how?
For Kant, the originator of self-determination, it denoted the individual’s self-creation through reason, and thereby his or her attainment of freedom. In the Age of Revolution, individual rights and freedoms came to be seen as inextricably bound to citizenship and the state. For the lesser known but deeply influential Fichte, Kant’s ideas were the jumping off point for a celebration of personal subjectivity, as the “I” not only comes to understand and deploy itself, but creates both itself and the world of other human beings. Those others, for Fichte, were not Kant’s free-floating universal individuals, but the members of the nation. This turn to the nation spoke to a crucial feature of the time, the search for new forms of belonging to take the place of disrupted traditional collective identities. That search took its key, in turn, from that great destructor of traditional identities, the Protestant Reformation, which elevated the individualism and subjectivity that were hallmarks of the new urban middle classes.
Through much of the 19th century, Weitz argues, the individualist reading of self-determination predominated, but at the turn of the century that reading increasingly gave way to the integration of the idea of self-determination with socialism. Marx, too, had sounded Fichtean themes of the primacy of the social, of praxis, of the philosopher as activist at the service of the new state that rides on Hegel’s wings of history. As empires collapsed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the new states created by national groups came to be seen as vehicles of the long-awaited, historically necessary revolution. After World War I, Wilson, trying to steal a march on the Bolsheviks, took up the idea of self-determination, in a Lockean vein, as Weitz puts it, of “free white men coming together consensually to form a democratic political order.” The idea was thus firmly entrenched in the evolving interwar order, though not in ways Wilson had thought, not least when Hitler repeatedly invoked self-determination as the now-sacred principle that had ruthlessly been violated by the punitive terms of Versailles.
After the war, at San Francisco, “self-determination” was named along with “equal rights” in Article 1 as one of the very purposes of the United Nations. As post-colonialism barreled along, self-determination became the moral claim of national movements, steadily unhinging it from its liberal, Kantian origins. The result, as Weitz says, “made ‘the right to have rights’ dependent on membership in the national or racial community”, leading at times to emancipation, and at others to its depressing opposite.
What we see from all this is that self-determination pushes in two different directions: one individualist and the other collectivist. The former is universalist in the sense that it sees all human beings as fundamentally sovereign individuals. The latter is particularist, seeing individuals as having identity only in the context of the larger, national sovereign. This duality is akin to how secularism as a political ideology similarly pulled into two different directions. One, liberalism, wished to free the individual by limiting the state; the other, totalitarianism, to free the state by limiting the individual.
Walzer’s analysis here of liberation run aground recognizes only the former kind. Nothing he has to say speaks to Russia or China, because those revolutions were not dialectically tied to religion; they rather sought to devour religion whole, putting it down with a ruthlessness that Nehru, Ben Bella, and Ben-Gurion neither desired nor imagined. Then again, those revolutions were not strictly focused on de-colonization. Their devils were not foreigners but co-nationalists. Perhaps it is easier to hate those to whom one is closest.
And there is something else. Regimes arising out of national liberation have fallen on hard times not only because of their weakened cultural foundations but also because they have so often failed to deliver. Israel’s founding elites were rocked and eventually undone by the strategic surprise of the Yom Kippur War and the economic and ethnic resentments left over from the rough edges of state building. In the Third World, state socialism has become either a relic or, in places like North Korea, a horrifying totem of the bizarre. The linkage between cultural thinness and policy failure is that the former makes it harder to sustain a polity and its hard choices over time.
One is hard pressed to find words to describe the goings on in the Middle East today. But one thing is clear: Secular nationalism was built on sand. No such polities are capable of managing Hobbesian political realities, let alone subtleties of policy. To survive at all, such secularisms need to militarize the politics of the realm, for they are long past mobilizing consent. Today’s religion-based movements, however, are mobilizing consent, and a lot more than consent. And they are not liberal: Where they prevail, with the help of sympathetic, or at least compliant, mercantile classes, no space will remain for any dialectic between secular liberation agendas of any kind and those of an empowered clergy on the march.
In the end, if we want decent politics to prevail anywhere, to move at all from Hobbes to Locke (though in some places today, Hobbesian sovereignty seems mighty attractive compared to the alternatives on hand), we need to rebuild the idea of citizenship. We need a basis for a kind of political participation wholly determined neither by primordial identity nor by transcendence, but by that precious “civic” something in-between. Using the very helpful terms of one of Walzer’s earlier works, a “thinner” conception of citizenship might command a more universal assent to some politics of decency. But that too, it turns out, requires some real defending.
Liberalism, like the notion of sovereignty at its heart, rests on a view of human personhood—sovereign, inviolable, sacred—whose historical origins are rooted in theology. Maybe that theology is just a myth, but it’s a myth we seem to need, and indeed can’t live without. Whether liberalism can endure without those theological understandings and their normative claims is an open question. Walzer credits religion, at times reluctantly, at others appreciatively, with tenacity in the face of secular liberal ideas. Perhaps, however, it is a form of that tenacity that allows secular liberal ideas to exist in the first place.