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.

We must now ask exactly what Walzer understands social criticism to be. To begin with the job of the social critic is to criticise – if he did not do that he would be false to his calling. ‘The modern social critic is a specialist in complaint, not the first, certainly not the last.’ But the word ‘social’ carries a dual meaning for Walzer. A social critic is not simply someone who criticises society but a critic who is socially-orientated – that is to say, one who identifies with the society criticised and makes an appeal to its members. ‘Complaint is one of the elementary forms of mutual recognition. When what is at issue is not existence itself but social existence, being-for-others, then complaint is proof enough: I complain, therefore I am. We discuss the complaint, therefore we are.’ Social criticism is, then, an intrinsically social activity. It presupposes the existence of a community-a ‘we’ – which is in principle reachable by criticism. Thus, as I understand it, what brings Breytenbach within the fold of Walzer’s social critics is that, although he operates from Paris and has taken French citizenship, he continues to address himself to Afrikaners. Suppose he gave up on them and spent his time advocating international intervention to bring down the apartheid regime. He would, plainly, still be a critic of Afrikanerdom, but as far as I can see he would not be a social critic in the special sense that Walzer gives the expression: ‘even in exile [the social critic] cannot embrace the pleasures of absolutism.’ Social critics in leaving their country did not ‘place themselves outside the nation’ because ‘they continued to identify with the nation, to defend its interests, to interpret its values; and because distance for them was more pain than glory.’

Walzer makes it fairly clear that his three favourites are Silone, Orwell and Camus, each of whom, according to him, identified with the group into which he was born (peasants of the Abruzzi, the English, and Algerian pieds noir) and sought to articulate the values of that group or at least (in the case of Camus) to defend their interests against ‘cosmopolitan’ demands. They are all applauded for their attacks on ‘abstract theorising’ – that of the Italian Communists, of vegetarian sandal-wearers domiciled in Hampstead, and of Parisian supporters of the FLN such as Sartre and de Beauvoir. Buber and Breytenbach score points for not giving up in spite of the total rejection of their message by their audience. Buber stayed after the foundation of Israel even though it represented the collapse of all his hopes for peaceful settlement, and carried on giving advice which was ignored; Breytenbach, in exile, continues to address ‘his tribe’ in South Africa. Walzer’s treatment of both is respectful rather than warm, however. It may be that for a socialist who is constrained by his own theory to maintain that socialism is entailed by mainstream American values, and a committed Zionist who is unhappy with the drift of Israeli policy, it is all a bit too close for comfort.

Bourne earns Walzer’s approval for his opposition to America’s entry into the First World War (Walzer endorses this opposition without offering any justification) and for his criticism of John Dewey and Walter Lippmann for writing pro-war propaganda. He is also (like all those up to this point in the rankings) considered methodologically sound by Walzer: ‘studying and clarifying the ideas of American democracy’ was, Bourne said, the intellectual’s business. However, Walzer has reservations about Bourne’s avant-garde tendencies and attachment to Bohemia, which drew him away from identification with ‘the people’. Gramsci represents a far more dubious case. ‘He never ceased to hope that the war of position, led by the Party, could nevertheless be a democratic war.’ Imprisonment saved him from having to decide which way to go if ‘the Party and the true doctrine it embodied’ manifestly failed to convince its constituency. Walzer voices a fairly strong suspicion that Gramsci would have jumped the wrong way, so perhaps he only gets off as lightly as he does in virtue of his courage in prison. Foucault, Marcuse and de Beauvoir get an unambiguous thumbs-down. They are either bad social critics or (I think this should be the implication if we take Walzer’s conception seriously) they are not social critics at all. Walzer has no great difficulty in showing that Foucault fails to meet the criteria. To complain that ‘there isn’t any stable reference to moral ideas or to people or institutions by which outcomes might be measured’ is merely to say that Foucault didn’t play Walzer’s game. Walzer concludes his discussion by saying cheerfully that in a liberal democratic society we can all get together and make things better. This is not to point out a possibility that Foucault somehow overlooked but simply to reject his analysis, the whole point of which is to deny any such possibility.

Anyone who has read Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man ought by now to be able to construct Walzer’s critique of it without any help from me. Obviously Marcuse is a crashing cultural élitist – ‘he is not committed to a dialogue with ordinary Americans’ – and his criticisms are too sweeping and too hysterical.

Simone de Beauvoir has one thing going for her, in Walzer’s view, and that is that she is better than Sartre. ‘All his life, Sartre was a savage critic of bourgeois society, but what he had to say about the bourgeoisie could have been said by a hundred others, and probably was. De Beauvoir’s criticism is more original and at the same time more attentive to her and other people’s actual experience.’ However, she seems to be the one member of the company for whom Walzer feels real dislike. She is, he says, an ‘assimilationist’ who thinks the only way forward for women is to imitate men. Men’s bodies, however, are better adapted to success in the world men have made (which is the only one where success counts) and this leads de Beauvoir to a disparagement of women’s bodies which Walzer says reminds him of an assimilated Jew or of a Black who has adopted white standards of beauty. Predictably, Walzer prefers the ‘different voice’ school of feminism: ‘a more affirmative view of mothering’, ‘caring social values’ etc. ‘On this view, the very idea of a universal humanity is itself oppressive in so far as it holds subordinate groups to standards they have had no hand in shaping.’ Benda, finally, is included, not as a social critic, but as a writer on the role of the critic. Walzer agrees with him that the critic should not hand his conscience over to a state or a party, but dissents from Benda’s main argument, that the critic should cultivate detachment. As should now be clear, the whole of The Company of Critics is about the virtues of ‘connectedness’ in a social critic.

It seems to me that the sole element of truth in the claims Walzer makes for social criticism is as follows: if you want to convince the members of a society of something, what you say has to connect up in some way with what they already believe. In fact, this is a condition of intelligibility. If I say, ‘You ought to do x because y,’ and y does not relate to any reason (moral, prudential, aesthetic or whatever) that you can recognise, then what I have said is simply puzzling. But this is in reality a very weak condition, because at any rate in every modern society there is always a great variety of ideas to which appeal can be made.

Walzer assumes that particularistic values are necessarily more authentic than universalistic ones, but he offers no argument for this. The Declaration of Independence appealed to the ‘decent opinion of mankind’. As rewritten in Walzerese it would have begun: ‘We hope that these ideas will seem familiar to most Americans ... ’ And in the American South the most that could have been hoped for was the development of stronger norms mandating decent treatment of slaves. Fortunately there were people in the North who took seriously the idea that ‘all men are created equal’ and in that universalistic spirit demanded the abolition of slavery. Walzer’s ideas about the practice of social criticism also seem to me quite objectionable. In fact his account of what his social critics did is patronising and demeaning. Walzer’s model social critics are contrasted with a stereotype in which the critic breaks with his background, ‘steps back so as to see the world with absolute clarity’, ‘discovers universal values for the first time’ and so on. Against this, Walzer maintains that the critic ‘never quite stands free and freely chooses his commitments, but struggles instead to sort out the commitments he already has.’ If this merely meant that nobody ever gets outside his own head, it would be undeniable. But Walzer intends far more than that. His idea is that the social critic starts from an commitment to the interests and values of the group with which he identifies (normally the one he was born into) and all his criticism is carried out within that framework.

If this were true then we would have to say that it was sheer dumb luck that Walzer’s social critics finished up on the left. But it is not true. When Silone claimed that the essentials of political morality lay with the peasants of the Abruzzi, he was a much-travelled political sophisticate, as Walzer himself recounts; but on Walzer’s theory he would have to be some sort of autochthonous moral simpleton. Similarly, although Orwell enjoyed parading his anti-intellectualism, he would scarcely have thanked you for suggesting that he had not broken with his background, and stepped back and reached a conscious decision to become a socialist. It is true that he thought socialism must relate to working-class values, but it is not accidental that he went to live with miners in Wigan rather than followers of Oswald Mosley in the East End of London. A similar story could be told of the rest of Walzer’s social critics. Even in the most unpromising case, that of Camus, identification with the pieds noirs did not extend beyond a certain point of defending the indefensible, and, as Walzer recounts, he eventually fell silent. Perhaps Buber should have done likewise, but at any rate he continued to affirm the equal value of the lives of Jews and Arabs, however much that principle was being violated. Whatever plausibility there is in Walzer’s conception of the social critic derives from his playing upon a pernicious confusion between two senses of ‘identification’. In one sense, identification is a sense of belonging to a group, caring about what happens to it, and wishing to play a part in its life. In the other sense, identification means putting the interests of the group ahead of those of other groups and therefore refusing to judge it by universalistic criteria. It is pure dogma to say that good criticism requires the first sort of identification. Even if criticism by outsiders aimed at the members of a society is seldom effective among them, criticism does not have to be exclusively aimed at the members of the society criticised. Outsiders should be prepared to criticise and, if the case is bad enough, intervene.

Suppose, however, we gave Walzer the premise that all social criticism must arise from identification in the first sense. The point to be insisted on is that this does not entail identification in the second sense. Caring about a society does not mean wishing its good at the expense of injustice to others, nor does it mean that particularistic values should trump universalistic values. The social critics that Walzer approves of (and my list would not be very different from his) identified with their societies in the first sense but I do not believe that they did so in the second sense. More precisely, they may have done so – it is hard to avoid – but it was not something that they would have taken pride in if they had become aware of it. They were rather better human beings than Walzer makes them out to be.