Dear Nadia, here are the limits of dialogue
I opposed a war of liberation in Eastern Europe. I favored diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and China. But we did insist, all of us, that the Stalinist regime was guilty of mass murder, and we would not have shaken hands or joined in a sit-down dialogue with the murderers. Diplomats can shake hands with anybody; they always wear gloves. But leftist intellectuals should set limits on whom they talk to. I am sure that Nadia would recognize this requirement with regard to the Nazis; it applies also to Stalinists—and to Islamic zealots today. What should Western leftists be doing with regard to Islam today? We should defend leftist principles of democracy and equality on every possible occasion. I don’t see anything intolerant or Manichean in this political position.
This text represents the first contribution of Michael Walzer in his dialogue with the philosopher Nadia Urbinati. The dialogue stem from Urbinati's article “Forget manichaeism: like Bobbio, I choose dialogue”, published by the magazine Reset in its September-October 2007 issue (no.103).
Nadia Urbinati is an old friend, and I am definitely in favor of dialogue with her, though not with all the people that she is eager to bring into the conversation. So this is a response to (and critique of) her essay, and all my arguments here are open to further discussion. Both the oppositions that Nadia sets up, between the two kinds of multiculturalism and the two versions of democratic theory, are examples of the rigid (Manichean?) dichotomies that she claims to be against. These oppositions don’t come close, it seems to me, to an accurate description of the arguments that are actually going on today. Nor is the analogy with the struggle against communism useful in her version of it—though I agree that it is a necessary analogy. Let me pursue it for a moment, in the first person. I was never a connected or contextual critic of the Stalinist regime—how could I be, living in the US? I was a disconnected critic, applying minimalist, universalist moral principles (I explained how such criticism works in an essay called “Moral Minimalism,” first published, I believe, in Italy). Of course, I supported connected critics inside the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (and all of us on Dissent befriended exiled dissidents from the East), and I was myself a connected critic of Western intellectuals (there were a lot of them) who defended or apologized for Stalinist crimes.
And, at the same time, I opposed a war of liberation in Eastern Europe; I favored diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and China; I believed in the importance of summit meetings; I supported American aid to the communist regime in Yugoslavia; I argued for a negotiated reduction in nuclear arsenals; I participated in meetings with Soviet academics and admired the American scientists who organized the Pugwash conferences. None of this fits Nadia’s description of a holistic and wholly intolerant view of Communism. And none of this was unique to me: these were the opinions and positions of a large number (never large enough!) of leftist anti-communists. But we did insist, all of us, that the Stalinist regime was guilty of mass murder, and we would not have shaken hands or joined in a sit-down dialogue with the murderers. Diplomats can shake hands with anybody; they always wear gloves. But leftist intellectuals should set limits on whom they talk to. I am sure that Nadia would recognize this requirement with regard to the Nazis; it applies also to Stalinists—and to Islamic zealots today.
Let me play with another analogy. Imagine that Nadia was transported to 11th or 12th century Italy. Would she tell us that critics of the crusaders had a holistic and intolerant view of Christianity? Would she insist that, after all, only a small minority of Christians were actually marching to the Holy Land, killing Jews along the way and Muslims when they got there? Would she urge us to recognize that the traveling friars, who preached death to the infidels (and often led the murderous mobs), were “searching for a meaningful life”? I hope and believe that she would be a fierce, though disconnected, critic of crusading fervor. Now send me and Paul Berman back to the same time. Would we insist that crusading fervor was the whole story of Christianity? Would we be unwilling to join in discussions with Christian opponents of the crusaders, like the theologians trying to develop a theory of just, as opposed to holy, war? Would we oppose an international conference to arrange some version of shared hegemony over Jerusalem? I hope and believe that the answer to those questions would be no.
So, where does this leave us in the 21st century? What should Western leftists be doing with regard to Islam today? We should be strong critics of jihadist radicalism—and since we are, most of us, infidels and secularists, we are bound to be disconnected critics, focused on issues like life and liberty, which have universal resonance. We should befriend Muslim critics of religious zealotry, both inside Muslim countries and in exile, and try to understand the reasons for their critique and the experience out of which it comes. We should be happy to talk to Islamic intellectuals and academics—though we are not bound to “dialogue” with people whose public position is that we should be killed (or who make apologies for the zealots who hold that position). We should be tolerant of Islam in exactly the same way that we are tolerant of Christianity and Judaism—even as we maintain a general critique of, or skepticism about, religious belief. We should be connected critics of Western intellectuals who make excuses for religious zealotry and crusading fervor (Paul Berman provides an excellent model of how to engage in this critique). And we should defend leftist principles of democracy and equality on every possible occasion. Of course, we should also try to understand the material conditions of democratic politics, as Nadia urges, but we should not neglect the importance of polemical engagements with the defenders of oligarchy and clericalism. Democracy in Europe depended on engagements of that sort, and so does democracy in the world today. I don’t see anything intolerant or Manichean in this political position.
Michael Walzer teaches Social Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He is one of the main participants in public debate in the United States and in Europe. He is editor of the magazine Dissent, and also contributes to the periodical The New Republic. His most recent works include Politics and Passion: Toward A More Egalitarian Liberalism (Yale University Press, 2004),On Toleration (Yale University Press, 1997) and Arguing About War (Yale University Press, 2004).