Keeping the Left Alive: Michael Walzer’s Political Action Reissued


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October 22, 2019

Keeping the Left Alive: Michael Walzer’s Political Action Reissued

If any book can help left-wing activists figure out how not to burn out, this is probably it

  • Democracy
  • Politics
  • the Left

Over the past four years, a remarkable number of Americans have gotten involved for the first time in liberal or left organizations. Upsurges of involvement have happened before. “It is an old American story,” the political theorist Michael Walzer wrote in a 1979 essay. “The flames of the political Left don’t burn steadily in this country. They flare up; the young are consumed. And all that remains, afterwards, are the ashes of political withdrawal, cultic and sectarian conversions, and personal opportunism.” If all the American left’s upsurges turn to ash, we have reason to despair for today’s new activists. Walzer saw reason for hope: “Apocalypse is never the whole story. Even in capitalist America, there are ways of growing up on the Left; there is interesting work to do.”

That hopeful and interesting work is the subject of Walzer’s book Political Action: A Practical Guide to Movement Politics. Originally published in the spring of 1971 and reissued this year by New York Review Books, Political Action is in a genre by itself. Like an organizing manual but more thoughtful and suggestive, like a work of political theory but more practical and elegant, it models and invites what Walzer has called “lay criticism” of public life. Compared with political experience, books are weak influences on political sensibilities. But if any book could help left-wing activists figure out how not to burn out, it would probably be this one.

In his preface to this new edition, Walzer recounts that he wrote Political Action “in the immediate aftermath of the American bombing of Cambodia.” By that time, the civil rights and anti-war movements in which he had participated over the previous decade had faded. Local organizations had fostered national mobilizations which had passed into quiet cynicism or, worse, impotent pretentions of revolution. By 1971, there seemed to remain “nothing to do.” Why hadn’t “activists, such as we were” been able to “keep things going,” he wondered? Writing Political Action was a way to diagnose what had gone wrong and to help a future wave of activists avoid old mistakes.

Taken page by page, Walzer’s advice to “citizen activists” may appear mildly even-handed. He proposes a limited number of strategies, organizational structures, and tactics as worthy of serious consideration. Strategically, a group can focus on pressure politics or electoral politics, perhaps blending the two but probably restricting itself to one at a time. Organizationally, a group can be a staff-directed advocacy campaign, a centralized democracy with an accountable but distant leadership, or a federation of small groups with wide participation in decision making and lots of amateurism. Tactically, a group can canvass, demonstrate, electioneer, or disrupt through a boycott or strike. None of these options, Walzer insists, is the best; none sets a gold standard. “There are only a limited number of things to do,” which means that “it is important, first, to do them well and, second, to do them enough.” Each option has its uses and its limitations: activists should be “prepared to do the same thing again and again, and be no less prepared to do something else next.”

Read as a collection of discrete pieces of advice, the book is useful enough. The cumulative import of Political Action, however, is anything but mild. Walzer’s real achievements are to offer a powerful (if gently phrased) critique of the American left’s self-destructive habits and to sketch a different way of being on the left: less heroic, more sustainable, and in the end more radical.

Take the deceptively simple opening of Walzer’s chapter on “Defining the Issues”: “New political movements generally take shape around a single issue.” People have a sense of “injury or indignation” about a specific problem, and they find that they can work together on that issue, whatever else they may disagree on. When other issues arise, their movement faces a decision. If members are to be “resolutely fixed on the single issue that brought them together,” they must “willfully” ignore the way that issue is entangled with others. If members instead “try to fit the single issue into a complex of problems,” they will need “a coherent program for social and political change.” This second approach may seem more honest, more authentically left-wing. Remembering the disastrous history of socialist and communist parties in the United States, Walzer warns that even though the attempt to build a political organization with an all-encompassing agenda may seem “the ‘right’ response,” it has never worked well. In no small part, he writes, the problem with trying to build an ideologically-coherent party is that it “requires too much from too many people — too much time, energy, money, above all too much commitment — to be politically viable.” He concludes, “Issues should be defined so that victories can be won.”

There is a familiar left-wing critique of single-issue politics: our best theories of society, we are told, show the need for a total transformation of society. The corollary is important, although not as frequently stated: activists should be prepared for total commitment to the cause of social transformation. Walzer doubts both the reliability and the utility of systemic social theory: “We make guesses and are usually wrong. In any case, action cannot and does not depend upon a true theory of social change. It requires a useful theory, or something less than a theory — a point of view, a set of opinions, an argument — that at least does not contradict whatever little we know to be true. And the most useful argument is one that imposes upon activists only one choice and only one fight at a time. They can always make further choices, join further fights, later on.”

Why choose only one narrowly defined fight at a time? For that matter, why be so flexible about how one fights? Walzer wants activists to eschew grand theories and comprehensive political agendas, to be open-minded in assessing strategic and tactical options, and to take warning from the tendency of activist upsurges to fade. These ideas do not add up to a theory, but they sketch something like a map of political life. Where a Marxist map of society might distinguish between classes, or between modes and relations of production, Walzer’s map demarcates spaces and institutions. “A great deal of political activity is routine day-in, day-out work, best left to professionals,” he writes in the book’s first chapter. “Other people don’t have time for it.”

Nevertheless, in “moments of crisis, the professionals often can’t cope,” and in those moments “the democratic system offers a standing invitation to the rest of us to enlist in political life, an invitation to commitment and participation.” Professional politics stands apart from ordinary life; public life, even for ordinary citizens, is different from private life. Thus new participants in political organizations often have the feeling of having “entered” political life, as if walking into a space they have not visited before. These boundaries and differences are facts that we need to appreciate if we are to think politically, to think in a way that respects the distinctiveness of the part of life that we call politics and allows us to navigate it.

It would be hard to overstate the importance — for Walzer’s works, or for the prospects of today’s new activists — of this effort to think in a political way. Walzer warns that new activists will find politics a shock, not because they are “incompetent people” but because they are “innocent of the complications of political life. They are unaware of the personal risks involved, unprepared for enmity and contention, unaccustomed to the sheer endlessness of artful talk and manipulative behavior.” Political life, in this account, feels different from private life, and properly public or political motivations for action must be different — somewhat impersonal, less about one’s private feelings than about the overlap between one’s own feelings and those of others. This means that the central problems of democratic politics are first to draw citizens into political life and then to keep them there a while, despite their discomfort. Strategies, organizational structures, and tactics should be judged by how well they achieve these two things, and by whether they help citizens learn to act in ways that fit the measured and impersonal nature of public life. Because stepping into political action is daunting, citizens’ political participation is characteristically casual or intermittent, and so citizen politics characteristically yields single-issue groups or campaigns with limited constituencies, aiming at discrete and incomplete victories. Those limitations, in turn, are why citizen politics depends on coalitions among groups that agree on limited agendas — Walzer devotes a chapter to coalitions — rather than unified mass movements or parties with comprehensive programs.

Citizen activists would benefit, Walzer suggests, from attuning themselves to the distinct uses and limits of distinct spaces and institutions, the way each feels different from others and tends toward different consequences, having what he has called a “mindedness” of its own. Thinking politically, citizen activists are relieved of the pressure for totalizing commitments and totalizing decisions, of the need to be revolutionaries or ideologues (or just busybodies). There is no one form of political action, no one political aim, that deserves their utter devotion. Relaxing a bit about both the means and ends of their political lives, citizen activists can build organizations more durable and more worthy of enduring.

From the perspective that Walzer offers in Political Action, much of what passes for radical politics in the U.S. seems shallow, the product of “personal rage and frustration” rather than of genuinely “political motivation.” Political Action reflects Walzer’s immersion in an alternative canon of writings by decentralist and pluralist socialists like J. N. Figgis, R. H. Tawney, Lewis Coser, and Irving Howe, whose idea of socialism was rooted in an astute feeling for the value of human fellowship. It also reflects the “realignment” idea current among American democratic socialists in the nineteen-seventies: the aspiration of convening a cross-class majority coalition of organized constituencies to pursue egalitarian reforms. After the seventies, as realignment advocate Michael Harrington would write, U.S. politics saw a “dealignment” instead: face-to-face forms of politics were displaced by professionally-run advocacy groups and candidate-centered elections; public relationships came to be mediated less by organizations and more by the things we call “the media.” In the wake of those changes, the original vision of the realignment socialists appears fresh and bracing, and Walzer’s appreciation of local citizen organizations and musings on how they can keep going seem prescient. For today’s new activists, eager to locate the overlap of imagination and possibility, the reissuing of Political Action is a timely gift, a reminder of how deeply rooted in real human lives one must be in order to be politically practical, and how practical one must be in order to be meaningfully radical.

But the socialist background of Walzer’s book is only one aspect of its radicalism, or of its relevance to our moment. Citizen politics begins, he writes, when “some group of people has decided to use the pronoun ‘we’ and to act together.” How can I know that my own “sense of crisis and outrage” will “meet a lively response,” that I can join a “we” and that my small group will have “intimations of growth”? Not from “pure theory,” Walzer cautions, but from “conversations and encounters with other people” containing “hints of commitment, plausible signs of interest.” Walzer says little about the conditions that make it possible to form a “we”; here as in other writings he seems to think that a responsible intellectual should be circumspect about fundamental questions. But a reader might pardonably see richer implications beyond the pragmatic scope of Walzer’s book. Something happens in “encounters with other people” that we do not understand but to which we should be faithful. The sense of common purpose from which political action grows seems to resemble the sort of thing that theologians call a mystery. Why might we hope that today’s citizen activists will build durable organizations and sustainable solidarities when so many of their predecessors did not? The emergence of citizen politics is “unpredictable,” Walzer writes. Perhaps that unpredictability is the reason why an opening to political hope, what Walzer calls a “fresh start,” is not only necessary but even possible.

Geoffrey Kurtz is an associate professor of Political Science, in the Department of Social Sciences at Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY, and is the author of Jean Jaurès: The Inner Life of Social Democracy.


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