Complaining

Brian Barry

  • The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the 20th Century by Michael Walzer
    Halban, 260 pp, £15.95, February 1989, ISBN 1 870015 20 7

Michael Walzer is one of America’s leading social critics, an editor of the magazine Dissent and the author of such books of political philosophy as Spheres of Justice, a systematic discussion of the nature of justice in society. In The Company of Critics he steps back from the activity of social criticism to reflect on the work of a number of other 20th-century social critics. The overall purpose of the book, however, is to commend one kind of criticism and to denigrate others.

In Max Beerbohm’s Seven Men there are actually portraits of six men; the seventh is Max. Similarly, The Company of Critics really has 12 subjects-the 11 to whom chapters are devoted and Walzer himself. Scarcely a paragraph goes by without his insinuating himself: praising, scolding, agreeing, disagreeing, rejoicing or lamenting. Taken in conjunction with his customary lucidity this sense of Walzer’s own engagement helps carry the reader along. The danger, however, which is by no means always avoided, is that the subjects tend to be manipulated by Walzer for his own ends. He begins with Julien Benda, famous for one book, La Trahison des Clercs. Randolph Bourne, who follows, was an American writer born twenty years later but dead of influenza in 1918, before Benda’s book appeared. Walzer focuses on his opposition to America’s entry into the First World War. Then comes Martin Buber, whose chapter concerns itself with his relations to the emergent state of Israel. Next we have a famous Italian Communist, Antonio Gramsci, and a famous Italian ex-Communist, Ignazio Silone. After this, George Orwell is discussed with special attention to The Lion and the Unicorn and Albert Camus in relation to the Algerian war. The following three chapters are devoted to Simone de Beauvoir, Marcuse and Foucault. The last author (and the only live one) is the exiled Afrikaner Breyten Breytenbach.

What do these writers have in common? One is that they are all on the left. They supported the cause of freedom and equality as they variously saw it. Still looking for patterns, we may notice that Walzer’s typical social critic is, to use an appropriately archaic and sexist term, a man of letters. That is to say, he (or in one case she) makes a living from some combination of journalism, non-fiction and novels that tend to be a continuation of the first two by other means. A list of social critics in the period covered by Walzer might plausibly include the names of Tawney, Harold Laski, C.Wright Mills and J.K. Galbraith but they do not make it into the pantheon. His subjects include three academics, but the only one whom Walzer has any time for is Buber, and the writings on which Buber’s reputation rests are dismissed pretty briskly (‘obscure and portentous’); Marcuse and Foucault are both attacked fiercely, while it is significant that the only other two writers with whom Walzer is out of sympathy, Benda and de Beauvoir, are probably the only ones whose brains and temperaments would have fitted them for academic life.

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